After a while, USC linebacker Rey Maualuga stopped watching the NFL draft.
"Friends would text me and I'd feel the phone vibrate," Maualuga said in a phone interview Saturday from his home in Eureka, Calif. "I thought, 'It's cool, I'm getting picked.' Then I'd say, 'Dang.' "
Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews and Maualuga were expected to become the first trio of players from the same unit to be picked in the first round. Instead, Maualuga waited through the entire first round before the Cincinnati Bengals selected him in the second round with the 38th pick.
Nonetheless, Maualuga still claimed USC as "Linebacker U." The Houston Texans selected Cushing at 15th overall, and Matthews went to the Green Bay Packers as the 26th pick.
"Unfortunately, I had to screw it up and not have three linebackers go in the first round," said Maualuga, who won the 2008 Bednarik Award for college football's top defender and will join former Trojan Keith Rivers with the Bengals. "But everything happens for a reason. . . . I'll be out to prove everybody wrong."
Maualuga, who fielded doubts about his on-field discipline, could look at Matthews for motivation. He was a former walk-on who broke into the starting lineup as a senior and won all-conference honors. On Saturday, he prompted Packers General Manager Ted Thompson to trade Green Bay's second-round pick (41) and both of its third-round selections (73, 83) to the New England Patriots for the 26th and 162nd picks.
"It's great when you have a team that trades up," Matthews said in a phone interview from his home in Agoura Hills. "It means the team really wants you and has trust in you. It shows they're serious about me and that I can make an impact right away."
Matthews felt a "rush of emotions" knowing he is continuing an NFL family lineage that includes his grandfather, father and uncle, albeit through an unconventional route as a walk-on. He was further reminded of his history when he looked at the T-shirts he and 30 friends and family wore that read "Walk on."
"I cherish it rather than hide it," Matthews said. "I don't think I'd have the hunger or desire today if it weren't for that."
That quality is the same reason why Texans defensive coordinator Frank Bush told reporters that Cushing was "a kid we targeted all along," and would compete to start at strong-side linebacker. Bush thought all three USC linebackers were "really close" but thought Cushing's hunger gave him an edge.
"I think I can bring a lot of intensity," Cushing said in a conference call. "I can also bring a lot of versatility, and I'm a guy that's going to play hard on every single play trying to make that tackle."
Added Maualuga: "I just hope myself and all Trojans that got drafted left a pavement for the guys at USC."