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Three USC linebackers could make history

NFL DRAFT

Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews are all projected to be chosen in opening round of the NFL draft; no school has had three from that position go in first round before.

April 24, 2009|Sam Farmer

NEW YORK — USC linebacker Rey Maualuga is a hitter not a hittee, so it's somewhat appropriate that the weight of this reality has not fully struck him:

Life as he knows it is about to change.

"I guess it really hasn't sunk in yet that tomorrow will be my last day as a college athlete," Maualuga said in a phone interview Thursday from his home in Eureka, Calif. "It's strange to think it's over."

Over, and just beginning. Maualuga and fellow USC linebackers Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews could be on the verge of history. They are all projected to be chosen Saturday in the opening round of the NFL draft. If so, they would be the first trio of linebackers from the same school drafted in the first round. Four times, a pair of linebackers from the same school have been selected in the first round (Florida State and Ohio State in 2006, Miami in 2004, Florida State in 1997, Ohio State in 1974, and Oklahoma in 1970).

So what does that say about this USC class?

"It says that SC is L.B.U.," Maualuga said. "I truly think SC deserves that title, if you look at all the linebackers who left out of here. Willie McGinest, Junior Seau, Lofa Tatupu, Keith Rivers, Jack Del Rio . . . the list goes on. Those guys have paved the way for guys like Clay Matthews, Brian, myself and Kaluka [Maiava], and hopefully this year we've set something up for the guys to come."

They were shoulder to shoulder on the field, but the USC linebackers will be scattered around the country on draft day. Maualuga has rented a meeting hall in Eureka and will watch the proceedings with about 100 family members and friends. Matthews too plans to monitor the draft with loved ones, but from Agoura Hills. And Cushing will be in New York, among nine top-tier invitees who will be on hand at Radio City Music Hall.

Maiava is projected by most scouts as a second-day pick, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of the fourth round.

Virtually everyone is in agreement on this: For one school to have four draft-worthy linebackers, three of whom probably will be taken in the first round, is astounding.

"It's unbelievable," said A.J. Smith, general manager of the San Diego Chargers, who are believed to be eyeing Maualuga with the 16th pick in the draft.

It's fairly unlikely that any of USC's linebackers will be selected among the first 10 spots, but it's also unlikely any of them will slip into the second round. Maualuga plays on the inside, and both Matthews and Cushing are outside linebackers. Some scouts consider Matthews to be the best of those players on third down and in other passing situations, which makes him especially valuable.

Asked about Maualuga, Cushing and Matthews as a trio, San Francisco Coach Mike Singletary said it's their intensity that sets them apart, noting that's not always the case when there's a glut of talented defensive players on the field.

"A lot of times, the more talent you see in a player, the less you see intensity," said Singletary, whose own intensity was his hallmark as an NFL player. "I don't know why that is . . . particularly if you have a lot of guys who are talented on one particular defense or offense, guys have a tendency to back off a bit and not have that edge. But I think those guys fed off one another."

Come Saturday, Maualuga will be feeding off something else -- the traditional Samoan barbecue his family is planning, which includes a roasted pig that has already been selected. Whether the guest of honor will be too nervous to eat is another story.

Maualuga, for one, says he doesn't have a clue about where he'll wind up. He made visits to Washington, Miami, San Francisco, San Diego, St. Louis, Tennessee and Kansas City. Coaches from the Dolphins, Redskins and Atlanta Falcons also came out to give him a look.

"I'm trying not to watch too much TV," he said. "Hopefully, I don't have some punks calling me Saturday, pretending to be owners that want to draft me."

Of course, he can worry about that then. For now, he's just trying to enjoy his last hours of life as he knew it.

--

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Follow Sam Farmer's NFL draft coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/latimesfarmer.

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