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They were schooled at Linebacker U

SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Several outstanding young pros at the position are products of USC.

December 17, 2009|Sam Farmer
  • USC linebacker Rey Maualuga (58) returns an interception with senior linebacker Keith Rivers (55) leading the way against California in 2006.
USC linebacker Rey Maualuga (58) returns an interception with senior linebacker… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Their ability to make plays all over the football field earned them acclaim as USC linebackers. Now, those former college standouts are showing even more range.

They're making plays all over the NFL map.

From Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga in Cincinnati, to Kaluka Maiava in Cleveland, to Brian Cushing in Houston, to Clay Matthews III in Green Bay, the program historically known for its offensive stars has become pro football's student body smite.

"These guys, they don't know what it is to loaf," said Mike Zimmer, Cincinnati's defensive coordinator. "I've never had to get on one of those USC guys for loafing. Never."

Maybe not, but those Trojans are making some serious bread. Four of them were drafted last season: Cushing and Matthews in the first round, Maualuga in the second and Maiava in the fourth. That came on the heels of Rivers' going ninth overall in 2008 and Seattle taking Lofa Tatupu in the second round in 2005. All of them are starters now except Tatupu, and that's only because the Seahawks' three-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker is done for the season because of a torn chest muscle.

"It's definitely Linebacker U," Rivers said. "Pete Carroll has done a great job of bringing the best players in and developing them. I don't think you can point to another school that's produced linebackers the way we have the past couple of years."

The school's greatest linebacker is still in the league after 19 seasons. Junior Seau is a backup for New England, his last go-round before heading to the Hall of Fame. USC has had several other outstanding linebackers go on to noteworthy pro careers, among them Chip Banks, Duane Bickett, Jack Del Rio and Clay Matthews Jr. But the recent flood of them has been remarkable.

Cushing, the 15th pick last spring, is a top candidate for defensive rookie of the year. He leads all first-year players with 112 tackles, and has 2 1/2 sacks, three interceptions and two forced fumbles.

He's coming off a 10-tackle effort in a Houston victory over Seattle, but such outings aren't unusual for him. He has hit double digits in tackles six times, including 11 tackles and an interception in an eight-point loss to Indianapolis less than three weeks ago.

"I play the game, and I go home and turn on the computer and see a picture of me lining up across from Peyton Manning," Cushing said by phone. "It's just like, that's the guy in all the commercials, that's the guy you grew up watching. And now you're lined up in front of him trying to beat him.

"You get to the point where it's like, 'Wow, I kind of made it. I kind of made it to that point where I wanted to be.' I want to be a guy that's talked about like he is."

Head 1,300 miles north of Houston and you'll find Matthews having a phenomenal rookie season in Green Bay. He was selected NFC defensive player of the week after he had six tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in a Packers victory over Baltimore this month on "Monday Night Football." The two-time Pepsi rookie-of-the-week recipient is tied for second in the league with three fumble recoveries.

Ironically, the man who has been coaching the USC linebackers was a star across town. Ken Norton Jr., a former UCLA standout who went on to become the first player to be on three consecutive Super Bowl winners -- two with Dallas, one with San Francisco -- is a hard-driving perfectionist when it comes to coaching.

"I try to give all my players a piece of all the great players and coaches I've been around," he said. "I want to show them the mental side of the game, the psychology of playing football. Knowing things before they happen. Really understanding about the emotion and fire and intensity you need."

Even for the best college players, that's not always the most pleasant experience. Maualuga said he used to hate Monday practices at USC because they invariably involved a nitpicking film session during which no one was spared.

"You'd sit there like this," he said, slumping his shoulders and sliding down in his chair. "It makes you realize that you must really want to play football to sit through all of that.

"[Norton] says things that get inside of you: 'Hey, you let a little dude outrun you!' He knew how to push my buttons. Glad to be coached by the guy, but sometimes it's like, whew, glad to be out of there. Little sense of relief."

That meticulous attention to detail has paid off. Jeff FitzGerald, Bengals linebackers coach, will attest to that. He frequently runs the position drills at USC's pro-day workouts, putting the players through the paces for scouts and coaches, and confessed, "I have coveted many a linebacker coming out of there over the years."

In 2008, for the first time in his 15-year NFL coaching career, FitzGerald got a chance to work with a first-round rookie (Rivers). And this year, he was thrilled to see Maualuga slip into the second round where the Bengals could get him.

"I was just stunned he went where he went," he said. "I was looking around the room and feeling a little bit guilty. Not that much, but just a little."

Cushing, for one, isn't surprised about the success he and the Trojans he played with have had.

"We always heard about other schools being Linebacker U, and we kind of thought, 'Why not us?' " he said. "We saw the talent around us, and we knew how good we were. We wanted to be those guys."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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