Look out Penn State. Another school is staking its claim as Linebacker U.
Southern California has an impressive track record of producing NFL linebackers, including Junior Seau, Jack Del Rio, Willie McGinest, Chris Claiborne, Lofa Tatupu and Keith Rivers.
You can add Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews to that list. All three are projected to be first-round picks in the coming draft.
It’s rare for a college to have three players drafted in the first round. Three first-rounders at the same position is unheard of. A fourth USC linebacker, Kaluka Maiava, projects as a middle-round pick.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen three players come out that are as heralded as this group, and we’ve had some good linebackers come through there,” said Del Rio, a USC All-American and current head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Maualuga, a three-time All-Pac 10 selection, is the top inside linebacker in the draft. He was a consensus All- American, Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and the winner of the 2008 Bednarik Award as the best defender in college football as a senior.
A seek-and-destroy defender whose relentless style is reminiscent of Seau’s, the 6-foot-1, 250-pound Maualuga collected 273 career tackles, nine sacks and five interceptions in his career.
After running a 4.88-second 40- yard dash while aggravating a hamstring injury at the NFL combine, Maualuga redeemed himself by clocking in at 4.6 seconds at USC’s pro day. Scouts already know that he plays faster than his times. Sometimes he admittedly plays too fast.
“I tend to leave my feet and overrun plays and be a player I’m not,” Maualuga said.
“Coach always teaches me that it’s all about making the plays you’re supposed to make and not plays that go beyond your ability. I learned to tone it down a little bit and go out there and play football.”
Cushing and Matthews are part of a bumper crop of outside linebackers, a position of interest for the Buffalo Bills. The position’s top prospect, Aaron Curry of Wake Forest, is expected to be gone before the Bills make their first-round pick, but Cushing and Matthews are likely to still be on the board. Both are versatile athletes who can chase down runners, rush the passer and drop into coverage. They have played outside linebacker and defensive end in USC’s 4-3 system.
Cushing had some injury problems earlier in his career but started all 13 games in his senior year. Scouts believe he can play the strong side in a 4-3 defense or slide inside in a 3-4 alignment.
“I think of myself as one of the top linebackers, regardless of defensive schemes,” Cushing said.
Matthews is the most intriguing of the USC prospects. Despite his amazing bloodlines—he’s the grandson of former NFL player Clay Matthews, son of longtime NFL linebacker Clay Matthews Jr. and nephew of Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews—Clay III walked on at USC as a 166-pounder because he had only one Division I scholarship offer (Idaho).
As he bulked up, Matthews made his mark on special teams (USC’s Co- Special Teams Player of the Year for three straight seasons) before becoming a starter his senior year. Playing the
“Elephant” position (a hybrid defensive end/linebacker), he posted 56 tackles and was third on the team in tackles for losses (9.5) and second in sacks (4.5).
“People who think he’s just a try-hard overachiever are wrong,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said of the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Matthews, who impressed scouts with a 4.57-second 40-yard dash at USC’s pro day.
“He can rush the passer better than any other USC linebacker. I think he’ll be a 10-year starter.”
While USC has the most blue-chip linebackers, Curry easily is the best of the bunch. Mayock considers him the top overall prospect.
Curry played the strong side as a senior, but Mayock said Curry is
“scheme-diverse,” meaning he can line up at any linebacker position in any scheme. In a draft full of risks, Curry is viewed as the safest pick.
“I believe a safe pick means I can come in instantly and make an impact on anybody’s defense,” he said.
“And my versatility as a linebacker to be able to play in the 3-4, inside, or outside, or 4-3, inside or outside, you just can’t go wrong.”
Curry solidified his status at the combine, finishing with the fastest 40- yard dash time (4.56 seconds) and 60- yard shuttle (11.35 seconds), longest broad jump (10 feet, 4 inches) and tied with two others for the highest vertical jump (37 feet) among linebackers. He also displayed tremendous agility during positional drills.
But Curry is more than a workout warrior. The game film shows a productive performer who posted 105 tackles, including 16 for lost yardage, 2z 1/3 1/2 ck 1/3 and three fumble recoveries as a senior.
“He’s not going to be a bust,” ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said.
“He’s going to give you everything he has. He’s got great character. He’s got versatility. He can cover. He can rush the passer. Aaron Curry would probably fall into that category as the safest guy—maybe not a boom, but certainly not a bust.”
Ohio State’s James Laurinaitis is the only other inside linebacker besides Maualuga projected to go in the first round. Laurinaitis is smart and highly instinctive with the athleticism to play in space. He’s versatile enough to play in any system.
Northern Illinois’ Larry English is among the defensive ends who could convert to a 3-4 outside linebacker. Kiper thinks English and Matthews are the best pass-rushing outside linebackers in the draft.