How often do teams lose a top-ten pick linebacker to the NFL Draft and still have considered one of the best set of linebackers in the country? Not often. USC has been blessed over the years with a stockpile full of excellent linebackers including, Clay Matthews Jr., Junior Seau, Chris Claiborne, and more recently Lofa Tatupu, Matt Grootegoed and Keith Rivers. This year is no different, with two potential All-Americans playing for the Cardinal and Gold.
Senior inside-linebacker Rey Maualuga's name may be hard to say to the rest of the world, but in Los Angeles it is a name they have known for quite some time. The two-time All-Pac-10 recipient is now looking for bigger awards. He has been on multiple pre-season All-American lists for 2008 and is considered a top prospect in the 2009 NFL Draft. Maualuga would have been considered a top prospect in the '07 draft, but the Outland trophy candidate had other plans in mind.
"We've got everybody here and nobody left early," Maualuga said. "I'm really proud that everyone stuck around."
Joining him are seniors Brian Cushing, Kaluka Maiava, Clay Matthews and Luthur Brown. Cushing is another blue-chip prospect, joining Maualuga on the pre-season All-American lists and ranked as a top outside linebacker for the '09 Draft.
"It's tough not to see all of the publicity, all the other things all around, but overall I think we have done a great job of ignoring the hype and executing all of the things we have to do," Cushing said.
Maualuga and Cushing return to their starting positions from last year, but the departed Rivers is now at Bengals camp rather than SC camp. Filling in Rivers' spot will more than likely be Maiava, who was a backup and a key special teams player in '07. Nephew of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Maiava may not be giving the opponents "the people's elbow" anytime soon, but quarterbacks will be definitely smelling what the Kaluka is cooking.
While appearing in all 13 games last year, Maiava had 44 tackles, 4.5 for losses and two sacks.
"He's a scrappy player," Cushing said. "He's tough and can get sideline-to-sideline.
"He's smart, a really heady player. He's not the biggest or the strongest, but he can just play football. With his attitude and the toughness he plays with, it just helps the defense out more."
Clay Matthews III is the son of USC great Clay Matthews Jr. Versatile and quick for his size, Matthews will be used in multiple defensive roles, especially as a stand-up end.
"They've definitely got me working. I'm switching between defensive line and linebacker," Matthews said. "There are some techniques I need to work on at defensive end, dealing with cut blocks and getting around the horn. With linebacker, I still have to work on my get-offs, hitting the holes and dropping into pass coverage."
"It's pretty much the same, but I actually have more freedom coming off the edge. I'm really enjoying it," Matthews said.
Last season, Matthews had a knack for big plays, with two block field goals and two forced fumbles.
Brown was primarily a special teams player in '07, walking away with 25 tackles. Hoping to backup Maualuga this season, Brown has had a slight setback, missing most of fall camp with a back injury along with red-shirt freshman linebacker Chris Galippo.
"They have been training hard and working out a lot. We're hoping to get them back soon," fellow linebacker Michael Morgan said.
Morgan, who is a sophomore for the Trojans, will be working as a weak-side linebacker and seeing time on special teams, but could see time at backing up Maualuga at middle linebacker, due to the injuries to Galippo and Brown.
"Rey has shown me a lot of stuff. When I make a mistake, he'll walk me through it and guide me. He's been a great guy to play under," Morgan said.
Morgan separated his shoulder near the end of Thursday's practice and will miss at least a portion of the remainder of camp.
Other linebackers who could be seeing time on the field this year include junior Nick Garratt, sophomores Malcolm Smith and Dan Deckas, red-shirt freshman Jordan Campbell and true freshman Uona Kaveinga.
The strength of the linebacker's depth over the past few years has been in part to the coaching of Ken Norton Jr. The most vocal coach on the SC staff, Norton Jr. has turned a successful playing career into a successful coaching career.
"It's like coaching the Super Friends," Norton said. "They're like super heroes. Rey Maualuga is like Superman. Brian Cushing is Batman. Kaluka Maiava's like my cage fighter. He can be hanging anywhere and he'll land on his feet. Chris Galippo is like Captain America. Malcolm Smith is the Green Lantern. It's amazing for me to coach these superhero-type guys. I'm fortunate to be with them."
While Norton Jr. sees his players as superheros, his crime-fighting team thinks the world of him.
"I don't know where I would be without Coach Norton. He's the best," Morgan said.