In spring camp, as all the new and returning faces at USC were still familiarizing themselves with each other, safety Calen Bullock distilled himself down to a single play for all newcomers to behold.
In an 11-on-11 drill, Bullock noticed two things: Receiver Mario Williams running a deep drag route and quarterback Caleb Williams rolling out of the pocket. As someone who also played receiver at John Muir High in Pasadena, Bullock sussed out that the receiver would next go upfield.
Bullock crossed from the opposite hash mark to beat Mario Williams to the spot and leaped for an interception, leaving Caleb Williams in stunned disbelief.
“Instincts,” Trojans defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said of Bullock. “You pretend like you coach them, but you don’t – he’s got them.”
That discovery of instinct and talent led Grinch and head coach Lincoln Riley to challenge Bullock to be a leader for the defense as a sophomore this season, and to be more outspoken with his teammates.
Bullock is a man of few words, so that was a challenge for someone who prefers to just play his game. But Riley says merely setting a good example will benefit the team and Bullock.
“Sometimes you challenge guys to be leaders, and they think, ‘All right, well you want me to help others.’ But actually, when you become a leader, and you have that responsibility, it forces you to get better,” Riley said. “It’s put a little more responsibility on his plate. If I’m elite, I have to be doing all the things I’m preaching. I have to be at the front of the line. I have to be locked in on every single play.”
Bullock had to be focused on defense as a true freshman for different reasons. He started six games at three different positions in 2021 – free safety, nickelback and cornerback. For a first-year player just trying to adjust to college, there were a lot of football concepts thrown at him all at once.
“It was really hard for me as a freshman to learn all three,” Bullock said, “but the coaches believed I could do it.”
And he did so to some acclaim, earning Freshman All-American honors from the FWAA and Pro Football Focus.
Some added muscle this offseason and a focus exclusively at strong safety – his natural position – has helped Bullock develop into one of USC’s most reliable defenders.
“He’s one of those guys where his best football is in front of him,” Grinch said. “We have to make sure we put him in position to be a playmaker for us. I think we’ve found that for him.”
Whether it was his chase-down tackle to save a touchdown or the 92-yard interception return for a touchdown on the next series against Rice, Bullock has been a reliable piece for the USC defense, cleaning up broken plays and delivering staggering hits.
And he’s still using some of the skills he learned as a freshman, as evidenced by his contribution of two interceptions to USC’s nation-leading 12.
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“At corner, ball skills, I would say, tracking the ball,” Bullock said of what he uses from his old positions. “Nickel, being patient, always. When I’m in man coverage and I gotta come down and play catch or something.”
Grinch believes Bullock may still be just scratching the surface of his potential.
“I don’t want to put a ceiling on him, I also don’t want to give him too high of praise,” Grinch said. “But we expect big things from him.”