Anthony Sarao has bulked up his physique.

He has grown out his dark, curly locks so that they flow out from under his cardinal- and gold-colored football helmet.

He looks more like former University of Southern California stars Troy Polamalu and Rey Maualuga than the kid who starred for Holy Spirit High School just two years ago.

But Sarao has not forgotten his roots. Written in large numerals on a cast on his right arm last Saturday, when he led USC with nine tackles in a 50-6 win over Colorado, were the numbers "609" - his old South Jersey area code.

"I take a lot of pride in it," Sarao said in a phone interview last week. "That's what I represent. I'm from South Jersey. New Jersey in general, just coming out here, you've got to represent. You can't be soft."

Only a redshirt freshman, the 19-year-old linebacker from Egg Harbor Township is representing admirably. A two-time Press first-team All-Star, he has emerged as a key contributor for the Trojans (6-1), who were ranked ninth in last week's BCS standings

but lost 39-36 to Arizona on Saturday.

Sarao has __________ tackles in eight games, despite playing with a torn ligament in his right thumb. He started the season opener as an injury fill-in and got a sack in that game. Since then, he has been a key substitute on defense as well as a top special-teamer.

"I think Anthony's a good example of what we're trying to get to," USC coach Lane Kiffin said in a phone interview. "We're trying to get our roster to where we can play more guys like that. Anthony was able to play a bunch on special teams and defense. … He's doing a great job for us."

That's not just coach-speak from Kiffin. Sarao was one of 30 recruits USC signed in 2011 (the NCAA limit is 25 per class, but players who enroll in January can count toward the previous year's class). The goal was to stockpile players who would be ready to contribute from 2012-14 - the three years in which USC is limited to 75 scholarships, as opposed to 85, due to NCAA sanctions.

A bowl ban in 2010 and 2011 also was part of the sanctions, which resulted from former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush accepting improper benefits.

Despite the sanctions, Kiffin has USC in Pac-12 title contention in his third year as head coach. Saturday's game against Oregon will be one of the marquee games of the season.

"Growing up, I was never on a losing team, so it feels good to keep doing it," Sarao said.

Sarao insisted his long hair is not any sort of tribute or USC rite of passage. He said he just decided to grow it out.

But he said he's inspired by USC's tradition of defensive stars, which also includes Ronnie Lott, the late Junior Seau, Clay Matthews III and Park Ridge, N.J., native Brian Cushing.

"It really just keeps a little trademark in the back of your head to work hard," Sarao said.

He looks the part, and he's playing pretty well, too.

But Sarao doesn't want to get too far ahead of himself. He said he can't believe it's already been two years since he was at Holy Spirit.

"I've still got three more years here, and I can't let it go too fast," he said.

Contact Jason Mazda:

609-272-7193