Mike Patterson Wrestles His Way Into The Spotlight

Sept. 8, 2002

By Chris Huston, Assistant Sports Information Director

USC sophomore defensive tackle Mike Patterson is used to being overlooked.

Back when he was a sophomore at Los Alamitos (Calif.) high, he toiled in obscurity alongside one of the most highly-touted players in the country in current USC senior defensive tackle Bernard Riley.

By the time he was a senior, Patterson was getting some accolades, but not enough to warrant much attention from schools like USC or UCLA. Despite posting 94 tackles, including 18 for losses and seven sacks in 2000, only Oregon and Colorado State were high on him.

Part of the problem was his size. If you took a tape measure to him, he would probably come in at just a shade under six feet. That's hardly the ideal height for a defensive tackle.

But if you tried to measure his heart, you wouldn't have enough tape to finish the job. And in football, a lot of heart goes a long way.

Eventually, Trojan defensive line coach Ed Oregeron recognized that. Lucky for USC, his epiphany came just in time to reel Patterson in.

'USC came on at the end of the recruiting process,' said Patterson. 'I really didn't want to go out of state and USC was the school I always wanted to go to. But the deadline to sign was approaching and I was about to commit to Oregon. Then coach Orgeron called. As soon as I heard his voice, I just was like, 'Yes!''

There was definitely something about the gravelly-voiced Orgeron that made Patterson feel at home. He also had a chance to become teammates again with Riley.

'The way coach Orgeron recruited me was different than the way the others recruited me,' said Patterson. 'It felt like he really wanted me to play for him. When Coach Hackett was at USC, he had some concerns about my size for the defensive line. But coach Orgeron would always call me and tell me to hang in there. He would always say 'I'm going to get you.'

'And it was really cool to follow Bernard. He really helped me out a lot when I got here. So I felt really comfortable when I got to USC.'

Patterson has repaid Orgeron's loyalty with some eye-opening play so far. Against Auburn, he not only led the Trojans in tackles with eight (including one-and-a-half for losses and a half sack), but he also helped Troy's defensive front four hold the Tigers to negative two yards rushing in the second half.

'I felt like I was in a zone that game,' said Patterson. 'It felt good because of all the work I had put in. All the changes I had gone through really paid off in that game.'

All the changes. That's a reference to the transformation that his body has undergone in the past few years.

'I was a small guy in high school,' said Patterson. 'I was maybe 5-10 and 250 pounds. I didn't really start to get bigger until the end of my junior year. And then, in my senior year, I really worked hard at it after the coaches told me I needed to gain some more weight. I drank a lot of shakes and spent a lot of time in the weight room. So that's how I got big.'

He got so big that by the time he checked in at USC, he was all of 306 pounds and had an uncanny resemblance to the Pillsbury Dough Boy. But the Trojan coaches felt that he would be much more effective at a lighter weight, so they asked him to start shedding some extra pounds.

'After all that work I had done to get big, now I had to lose weight again!,' exclaimed Patterson. 'They told me it would be good, though, so I worked hard at it. So far, I've done well. I'm down to 276 pounds right now. I think I'm at a good weight, but I feel I need to get up to about 285 pounds eventually so I can handle the big, physical teams.'

Patterson now looks like a bowling ball with arms and legs, and his explosive style of play and body shape caused Orgeron to dub him 'Baby Sapp' after All-Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp. If anyone has the right to coin that nickname, it is Orgeron. After all, he coached Sapp at the University of Miami back in the early 1990s. Fittingly, Sapp is also Patterson's idol.

'I think it was during fall camp that coach Orgeron gave me that name,' said Patterson. 'Sapp's my favorite player for sure. He was one of the short guys, too, and we have similiar body types. He worked very hard and now he is one of the best. So that's who I try to emulate. I try to work really hard to be the best.'

Another factor in Patterson's success is his excellent technique. He credits his days as a high school wrestler for his ability to gain leverage on opposing linemen

'Wrestling taught me to stay low,' said Patterson. 'I wrestled during my sophomore year of high school, while I was still an offensive lineman. Wrestling is basically the same technique as the defensive line. You have to stay low and use your hands. I mainly wrestled to stay in shape during the offseason. I made All-CIF Southern Section, but I wasn't that highly ranked or anything like that. But as soon as the football coaches saw how aggressive I was when I wrestled, they moved me over to defense.'

Ever since then, Patterson has thrived. He no longer toils in obscurity. He is even starting ahead of Riley, his former high school teammate, though part of the reason for that is Riley's continuing rehabilitation from knee surgery. Ironically, that injury to Riley last season against Washington provided Patterson with his first significant playing time in college. Just a true freshman, he recorded two tackles and recovered a fumble. He also made an important discovery. He realized he could play college football.

'At the beginning of last year, I wasn't doing much and thought I would redshirt,' said Patterson. 'But then I got in that game and that's when I knew that I could not only play, but that I would probably play a lot.'

Now he hardly ever comes out of the game, and number 99 is an emerging force on a young, but talented, Trojan defensive line.

And that's awfully hard to overlook.

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