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Lots of 'backers for these plays

Game features four of nation's best, led by Maualuga and Laurinaitis.

September 13, 2008|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

Dick Butkus remembers the feeling, remembers the pride.

Early in his storied career with the Chicago Bears, the Hall of Fame linebacker cherished playing against the Green Bay Packers because he could watch, measure and compare himself to another all-time great, linebacker Ray Nitschke.

"You just use it as a little incentive," Butkus said. "It gives you a little extra juice to do well."

Butkus, the namesake of the award presented annually to the top linebacker in college football, will be on the Coliseum sideline today when top-ranked USC plays fifth-ranked Ohio State in a game that features four of the nation's best linebackers.

Ohio State's James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman and USC's Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing are regarded as contenders for the award Laurinaitis won last year.

USC Coach Pete Carroll counts himself among the defensive disciples who cannot wait to watch the collection of talent on the same field.

"This is a rare opportunity," he said.

First and foremost, however, the winner will be positioned for a run to the Bowl Championship Series title game.

The Trojans have been absent from college football's biggest stage since the 2005 season, when they lost to Texas in the championship game at the Rose Bowl. The Buckeyes are trying to reach the final for an unprecedented third consecutive season after suffering embarrassing losses in each of the last two.

The outcome could ride on the play of the senior linebackers.

"We've always been aware of them, they've always been aware of us," USC linebackers coach Ken Norton said. "Sometimes I kid my guys, 'Hey, I wonder what it's like to be Laurinaitis' coach,' just to get at them."

Laurinaitis, a two-time All-American, has been a starter since late in his freshman season and a mainstay in the middle for a school that produced linebackers such as Chris Spielman and A.J. Hawk.

The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Laurinaitis, who leads the Buckeyes with 14 tackles, is known as a preparation freak, a character trait that shows up on Saturdays every time he fills a hole and finds the ball. But don't discount the physical factor.

"I've seen him just tattoo some people," USC quarterback Mark Sanchez said.

Laurinaitis, a rare two-year captain for the Buckeyes, is the son of former pro wrestler Joe "Animal" Laurinaitis. The Minnesota native opted to forgo the NFL draft for an opportunity to play one more season in Columbus.

"There's still times I wake up and say, 'I get to play for the Ohio State Buckeyes,' " Laurinaitis said.

Freeman, a 6-1, 239-pound fifth-year senior, helped Laurinaitis early in his career and has flanked him as a starter the last two seasons.

Sophomore Ross Homan (6-1, 229 pounds) is the other outside linebacker for a defense that ranks second nationally after victories over Youngstown State and Ohio.

"You think Ohio State guys are going to be really big and strong," Carroll said of the linebacker corps, "but these are quickness- and movement-oriented guys."

Last season, Laurinaitis was the leading tackler on what statistically was the nation's best defense. Maualuga was the top tackler on the nation's No. 2 unit but shared the spotlight.

Maualuga and Cushing played in the shadow of All-American Keith Rivers last season, but both have had star-making games against Big Ten Conference opponents.

Maualuga, 6-2, 250, was the 2008 Rose Bowl defensive most valuable player, intercepting a pass, forcing a fumble and recording three sacks in the Trojans' victory over Illinois. Ferociously powerful, especially when closing in on a target, Maualuga announced himself as more than a highlight hit waiting to happen with that performance.

The oft-injured Cushing, 6-3, 255, might be the most physically gifted linebacker on the field. His speed, strength and relentlessness were on display in the 2007 Rose Bowl when he forced a fumble and got 2 1/2 sacks against Michigan en route to becoming the game's defensive MVP.

"They are so savvy and experienced and, obviously, physical," Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel said. "Linebackers that size don't come around every day and yet they can run like crazy."

Maualuga and Cushing met Laurinaitis last spring during a photo shoot for the Playboy preseason All-American team and they remain in contact. Like Laurinaitis, Maualuga and Cushing considered turning pro after last season. They returned for a chance to lead USC to a national championship title and to increase their pro stock while teaming with senior linebacker Kaluka Maiava.

"Last year, Rey and I were just relying on talent," Cushing said. "This year, we're more complete linebackers."

Laurinaitis and Maualuga both will be chosen in the first round of the NFL draft, according to two pro scouts who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak on behalf of their teams.

"Laurinaitis is safer," one scout said. "But if Rey comes on, figures it out, and prepares like a pro, he could surpass him."

Cushing and Freeman are possible first- or second-round picks and Maiava and USC's Clay Matthews, a linebacker playing rush end this season, also could be drafted, the scouts said.

Like Butkus, however, the players will make their own judgments about where they stand after playing on the same field.

"It's going to be fun," Maualuga said. "You hope everyone plays well."

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Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.

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gary.klein@latimes.com

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