The Hits Keep Coming

Punishing Rey Maualuga drives a defense that, for a change, is the team's strong suit
August 10, 2008

OPPONENTS WHO have felt the Richter-scale jolt of a Rey Maualuga tackle probably don't realize it, but they are actually fortunate—they only have to worry about him one game a season. Maualuga's teammates are in peril every day at practice, because Sting Rey, as he is sometimes called, doesn't always differentiate between friend and foe when he's administering pain. At a midweek workout before the Trojans' season opener last year, Maualuga crushed wideout Patrick Turner coming across the middle. "I didn't get knocked out," Turner says, grateful for small blessings. "My arm did go kind of numb, though."

Such are the dangers of playing with or against Maualuga, a 6'2", 260-pound senior linebacker who was chosen as the scariest defensive player in the country by Rivals.com last year. He's likely to be even more frightening this season, as one of the leaders of a defense that—here's a twist—may have more stars than the USC offense. Outside linebacker Brian Cushing and free safety Taylor Mays are among the other standouts who should keep the Trojans in contention for the national title despite breaking in a new quarterback, junior Mark Sanchez, who will be throwing to an undistinguished group of wide receivers.

Though Maualuga has a well-deserved reputation for pulverizing people, he aspires to be known as a linebacker with a complete set of skills, which he showed off particularly well last season in the Rose Bowl, earning the defensive MVP award with three sacks, an interception and a forced fumble in a 49--17 win over Illinois. "I want to be the player the offense game-plans around, that the offense fears coming into the game," he says.

Maualuga hasn't just developed into one of the nation's best linebackers, he's equally proud of the strides he has made in his personal life. As a freshman he was arrested in connection with a fight at an off-campus party. No charges were filed, but he was saddled with a reputation for finding trouble off the field. "That childish player, that person I was, is long gone," he says. "I feel like I've developed a sense of leadership on the team. I've realized what's important."

What's most important to USC is extending its string of six straight Pac-10 championships and BCS bowl appearances, goals that seem well within reach. The Trojans should be fine on Saturdays—it's surviving the rest of the week with Maualuga that they need to worry about.

"I WANT TO BE THE PLAYER THE OFFENSE FEARS," SAYS MAUALUGA.

CONFERENCE: Pac-10

COACH: Pete Carroll (8th year)

2007 RECORD: 11--2 (7--2 in Pac-10)

FINAL AP RANK: 3

RETURNING STARTERS: Offense 4, Defense 7

SCHEDULE

AUGUST
30 at Virginia

SEPTEMBER
13 Ohio State
25 at Oregon State

OCTOBER
4 Oregon
11 Arizona State
18 at Washington State
25 at Arizona

NOVEMBER
1 Washington
8 Cal
15 at Stanford
29 Notre Dame

DECEMBER
6 at UCLA

KEY GAME
In the schools' first meeting since 1990, the Ohio State defense will provide a stout early test for a still-developing USC offense. The loser will need help getting to the BCS title game.

WORTH NOTING

The Trojans have had six straight seasons of 11 or more wins and no worse than a No. 4 ranking in the final AP poll, but this year they must replace 10 players who were drafted by the NFL, including seven taken in the first two rounds.

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PHOTOJOHN PYLE/CAL SPORT MEDIAIn his own way Maualuga is helping the Trojans break in a new QB. PHOTO

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