History will be made in this year's NFL talent lottery when USC linebackers BRIAN CUSHING, CLAY MATTHEWS and REY MAUALUGA become the first trio of players from the same unit to be selected in the first round. The burning question: Who comes first?
This is an article from the April 27, 2009 issue
Welcome to Pro Day at USC, college football's version of the Oscars. Sorry, can't let you in unless your name's on the list. The last time this event was open to the public—in 2006, when Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, among others, worked out—nearly 3,000 people turned up, and the fire marshal got his nose out of joint.
So it was invitation-only on April 1 when, under a royal-blue sky six miles south of the Kodak Theatre, some 500 scouts, coaches, general managers, agents and assorted remora thronged the Cromwell Track & Field Stadium on the Southern California campus to eyeball coach Pete Carroll's latest bumper crop. There was quarterback Mark Sanchez, throwing with more zip and accuracy than he had at the NFL combine five weeks earlier. After completing his scheduled workout, Sanchez was happy to oblige representatives of the Detroit Lions, who asked him to air out a few extra deep passes. No offense to Sanchez, whose eagerness to please practically shouted I am not Matt Leinart! but there was a bit more buzz on the other side of the ball.
A year ago four USC players were taken in the first round, a number the program is likely to match when the 2009 draft kicks off in Manhattan on Saturday afternoon. Of those four probable first-round picks, three—Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews III and Rey Maualuga—spent much of their careers slumped in the chairs of the same second-floor Heritage Hall meeting room, where they were hectored, praised and otherwise molded by Ken Norton Jr., the former NFL All-Pro now in his sixth season as the Trojans' linebackers coach.
While it's rare for a school to have three or more first-rounders, it would be unprecedented for three in the same position group to go that high. As the trio of 22-year-olds known as Cush, Clay and Rey sweated through Pro Day field drills, along with undersized outside 'backer Kaluka Maiava, who is projected as merely a middle-round pick, hard-boiled Indianapolis Colts scout John Becker told Carroll he'd never seen so much talent at one position on the same team at the same time.
It was with some justification, then, that at the end of those drills the linebackers drew close, joined their right hands and shouted, for the final time together and without apologies to Penn State, "L-B-U!"
While a half-dozen scouts and NFL personnel types interviewed by SI agreed that Cushing, Matthews and Maualuga should all be off the board before the start of the second round, there is no consensus on the order in which they'll go.
Maualuga won the '08 Bednarik Award, bestowed on college football's top defender, but it was Cushing whom teammates elected as one of USC's captains. Stout at the point of attack and no friend to the tight end ("At the end of the game, my goal is for him to hate me more than I hate him"), Cushing is hard-nosed, smart and versatile. Jacking up his value is his ability to play a variety of linebacker positions in 4--3 or 3--4 schemes, although one director of college scouting wonders if the 6'3" 243-pounder has the "shock"—brute strength—to stalemate guards as an inside guy in a 3--4.
No player in this draft packs more shock than the 6'2", 249-pound Maualuga, an explosive prototype Mike (middle linebacker) whose tackles Baltimore Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta likens to "train wrecks." DeCosta won't get an argument from Juice Williams (Illinois), Patrick Cowan (UCLA), Rudy Carpenter (Arizona State) or any of the other quarterbacks whose thoraxes number 58 has compressed, but there are questions about whether Maualuga and Cushing are sufficiently nimble in coverage to be three-down players in the NFL.
No such doubts surround the 6'3", 240-pound Matthews, whom experts judge the safest pick of this Trojans trio. A solid Sam (strongside 'backer), he is the fastest and most athletic of the three and the most effective pass rusher. He's also the best on special teams, which was his ticket out of football obscurity. "He's not great at any one thing," judges ex--Cleveland Browns G.M. Phil Savage, "but he's really good at almost everything."
Safety in a pick—bust insurance, if you will—is at a higher premium these days when scrutinizing Trojans, a notable number of whom have laid eggs in the NFL in recent years. The disappointments range from epic busts (wide receiver Mike Williams, tackle Winston Justice, defensive back Darnell Bing) to moderate busts (wideouts Keary Colbert and Dwayne Jarrett, defensive tackle Shaun Cody) to potential busts. Headlining the last category are Leinart and Bush, the stars of that 2006 Pro Day, neither of whom has come close to living up to the hype that accompanied them out of college.
"We've had that conversation," says one AFC scout about the danger of overdrafting USC players. "There's something to that. What can happen"—not just at USC, he notes, but at any loaded program—"is that a guy's weaknesses can be hidden by the scheme and the talent surrounding him."
The talent around Matthews kept him off the field for the better part of four seasons. Once he made it, though, Norton couldn't get him off. Of his three studs, says the coach, "Clay will be the one who starts the soonest and plays the longest." Not bad for a guy who at the beginning of last season didn't even appear on the NFL scouting combine's list of draftable players.
Not that he didn't have the pedigree. His grandfather Clay Matthews earned letters as a swimmer, wrestler and football player at Georgia Tech, then spent four seasons as a lineman with the San Francisco 49ers in the 1950s. In 1978 the Cleveland Browns selected Clay's eldest son, USC linebacker Clay Matthews Jr., with the 12th pick of the draft. Clay Jr. played 19 seasons; his 278 games are 18 behind the alltime leader—younger brother Bruce, who was enshrined in Canton in 2007.
Would Clay III keep the family's NFL tradition alive? Things weren't looking so hot in the fall of 2002. A rail-thin junior at Agoura (Calif.) High, the 166-pound linebacker and tight end couldn't crack the starting lineup. The defensive coordinator keeping him on the bench? Dad. "And rightfully so," recalls Clay III. "I wasn't physically or mentally mature, and I wasn't the best player. My senior year I put on some weight, grew a couple of inches and became pretty good."
Good enough to be invited to walk on at his old man's alma mater. Asked if Matthews was an afterthought, Norton replies, "He wasn't even a thought! He was Clay Matthews's son. But he had a plan, and this fire inside of him."
During a USC rout in his freshman season, Matthews was asked if he wanted to get in the game. He surprised his coaches by taking a rain check—in effect telling them he wanted to redshirt. Says Clay Jr., "I'm pretty sure those coaches were thinking, Kid, you can redshirt all you want, but you're never going to get on the field here."
Matthews made the kickoff team a year later and finished the season as a starter on every Trojans special teams unit. (For each of the last three seasons, Matthews was voted USC's special teams co--player of the year.) By this time he'd begun filling out his frame, and his athleticism was getting harder to ignore. During a seven-on-seven drill in the spring of 2006, Clay Jr. recalls, "I saw him plant and turn and run down the receiver, and I thought, Good grief—that kid's got a burst! Where did that come from?"
Still, his talent remained mostly under a bushel until the fourth game of his senior season, when Matthews started ahead of highly touted defensive end Everson Griffen—and stayed there, starting every remaining game. "He was so good," says Rocky Seto, now the Trojans' defensive coordinator, "that he basically forced us to alter our scheme to get four linebackers on the field."
Matthews's rise continued after the season. He excelled at the Senior Bowl, outperformed both Cushing and Maualuga at the combine, and then cemented his first-round status on Pro Day, running a blazing 4.57 in the 40 and looking more fluid and athletic than his better-known teammates. Not that it's a competition or anything.
It is, truth be told, a ferocious competition to see whose name is called first next Saturday. These guys are competitive about whose hair grows the fastest.
"No matter who goes where" in the draft, Cushing told a gaggle of reporters at the end of Pro Day, "we'll still all be friends." Admit it, a reporter later told Cushing in private: You'll be ticked if you're not the first USC linebacker off the board. "You're right," he replied after a pause. "You're right."
If Carroll has elevated competition to a kind of religion at USC, its foremost disciple is Cushing, a New Jersey native who brought a glowering brand of East Coast intensity to Southern California. Despite dislocating his left shoulder early in his freshman season, he started the final four games that year, with the help of pregame painkilling injections that left him dizzy and nauseous. Cushing began the next season by switching to Elephant—a stand-up rush end who sometimes dropped into coverage—and finished it as defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl.
Cushing's father, Frank, shares a story related to him by Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis. The day after Weis got the Fighting Irish job in December 2004, he called the Cushings to arrange a home visit. Weis, who was finishing out the season as the New England Patriots' offensive coordinator, told coach Bill Belichick the next day that he was headed to Jersey on a recruiting trip. Said Belichick, "You trying to get Cushing?"
The point being, NFL types have been aware of this kid for a long time. Over the course of a dazzling college career in which he started all four years, Cushing's biggest fault, other than his durability (he missed eight games to injury), may have been that he was around for four years.
"Sometimes when kids are so good for so long, we tend to pick on them too much," says NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock. "[Scouts] are picking nits now."
A seemingly serious question was raised on April 2, when NFLDraftBible.com reported that Cushing and Matthews had tested positive for steroids at the combine—an allegation swiftly and forcefully shot down by the NFL itself. "C'mon," says Matthews. "I did 23 [225-pound] reps on the bench at the combine. Do I look like I'm on steroids?"
Cushing, who also strongly denied the report to SI, knows better than to ask. Obsessive about his nutrition and training, he is built like Captain Marvel—"almost too big," observed one Pro Day scout, who also pointed out that Cushing seemed "a little tight in the hips" during field drills.
This fixation among NFL personnel types on such details as hip flexibility calls to mind General Jack D. Ripper's obsession with precious bodily fluids in Dr. Strangelove: After a while it sounds ridiculous. Cushing has no doubts about whether he'll be a three-down player in the league. "Absolutely," he says. "When I want something, I go after it."
What he wants is the chance to disprove the doubts. He wants an end to the season of nit-picking.
Pro Day was over. Now Maualuga, in keeping with the Oscars theme, ran down the list of people he needed to thank. He gave shout-out to "Zach and Chris at API"—Athletes Performance Inc., where he had trained daily for four months—and to "Dr. Alex Guerrero, who has been helping my hamstring out every other week."
Nursing a tender right hammy at the combine, Maualuga ran a Rich Eisen--like 4.91-second 40 in his first attempt, pulling the hamstring in the process. Needing to reassure scouts about his straight-ahead speed, on Pro Day he tore off a 40 measured between 4.59 and 4.71 seconds—this despite a sizable blister on his right big toe, an injury Maualuga interpreted as "the devil" trying to sap his resolve.
After thanking the Almighty for allowing him to triumph over the blister from hell, Maualuga gave props to his late father, Talatonu, who died from brain cancer two days before the Rose Bowl of his son's freshman season. Said Rey, "He was out there running that 40 with me."
Unmoored by his father's illness, Maualuga made some bad decisions as a freshman, one of them under the influence of alcohol at a Halloween party, where he punched a stranger. He was arrested for misdemeanor assault, completed community service and anger counseling, and had the charge dropped. "That incident is still in the back of my head," he told SI last September. "Now, when I go out, I think about the consequences. Or I'll just stay home, hang out and watch TV."
"Rey's really matured," said Carroll at the time. "He's a grown man now."
Even grown men still need a swift kick in the rear every so often. Following USC's stunning 27--21 loss at Oregon State last September, in which Maualuga was "terrible," according to Carroll—Norton summoned the senior to his office.
"I felt he was underachieving," Norton recalls. "And he needed to know that. Just to challenge him a little, I asked him, 'Is it possible that you might be overrated?'"
Norton then issued a not-so-veiled threat, asking the proud senior how embarrassing it would be for one of the most feared players in the college game to be second string on his own team. "Worst meeting of my life," recalls Maualuga.
It had the desired effect. "Rey just cranked it up to another level," says Carroll. "He practiced great, studied [the game] harder and better than ever. He finished on the rise." When the season ended, his teammates voted him the Trojans' most valuable player.
Which of the three will be deemed most valuable on April 25? What is it they say at the Oscars?
The envelope, please.