Rey Maualuga will not be looking back.
Not after USC Coach Pete Carroll announced Wednesday that Maualuga would make his first start at middle linebacker when the fourth-ranked Trojans play 19th-ranked Nebraska on Saturday at the Coliseum.
"To get that starting spot," Maualuga said, choking back emotion, "I'm just going to keep going and going and hopefully things will turn out great."
The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Maualuga backed up Oscar Lua last season and battled the fifth-year senior for the starting role throughout spring practice and training camp. Lua, a team captain, got the nod for the opener against Arkansas but strained a hamstring on the first series and has not participated in a full practice since.
"He's played faster this week," Carroll said of Maualuga. "Feeling the absence of Oscar helped him some. He had to get everything right. He had to take the leadership position."
Maualuga has been on track to start, and perhaps star, since he arrived on campus last year from Eureka High. But Maualuga's ascent was slowed some by off-the-field situations.
Last November, Maualuga was booked on suspicion of misdemeanor battery after punching a student at a Halloween party. In January, his father died after a long bout with cancer. In May, he agreed to take part in an arraignment diversion program that included counseling after he was charged with one misdemeanor count in connection with the November incident.
Maualuga said Wednesday that his troubles were behind him. "I've come a long way," he said.
Maualuga said his mother, Tina, would arrive in Los Angeles today and that she would see him play in person on Saturday for the first time since he came to USC.
"It will be a good deal for me to have at least someone that's very close to my heart to be there with me," he said.
Sophomore safety Kevin Ellison did not practice and wore a brace on his left knee, but he said he would play against Nebraska.
"I don't think I'll be limited," said Ellison, who hyperextended the surgically repaired knee on Tuesday.
Freshman Antwine Perez, who graduated from high school a semester early and participated in spring practice, worked in Ellison's spot with the first unit.
Nebraska cornerback Andre Jones supplied fodder for USC by telling reporters in Nebraska that the Cornhuskers would beat USC.
Jones, a transfer from Fresno City College, also said he chose Nebraska over scholarship offers from several Pacific 10 Conference schools, including USC.
"It came down between USC and Nebraska," Jones said. "When I went there, I just didn't sense that love that I felt when I came here. It's more Hollywood out there. It didn't seem real to me. I wanted to come to a town where football is loved."
Carroll said the Trojans scouted Jones and invited him to attend a game but did not offer him a scholarship.
Senior center Ryan Kalil sat out the last 20 minutes of practice after a collision left him with a headache. ... Carroll said no decision had been made on who would start at running back, but he said freshmen C.J. Gable and Emmanuel Moody "seem like they're continuing to stay in the lead positions in the spot."