Trojan Linebackers Look to Turn Heads at Senior Bowl

MOBILE, Ala. -- Former Southern California linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing share shoulder-length dark hair and past credentials as blue-chip recruits. Teammate Clay Matthews is a blond who looks as much like a surfer as a linebacker and received scant interest from major colleges.

Differences aside, all three former Trojan linebackers have a chance to boost their NFL draft stock this week at the Senior Bowl, which also affords them one last chance to line up together and motivate each other.

"We all made each other who we are, by competing," Maualuga said. "Sometimes there's jealousy there to become the best and be better than the person next to you. That's why the competition is so awesome and great, and that's why we've been so successful this year."

Maualuga is the most acclaimed of the trio. An AP All-American, he won the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation's top defensive player and was the Pac-10 Conference defensive player of the year.

Cushing was a second-team All-American. Both are projected as likely first-round draft picks.

Matthews started his USC career as a walk-on and finished as a starter and NFL prospect who mostly played defensive end for the Trojans. In the process, he earned the respect of teammates like Maualuga, who recalled people saying of Matthews: "He'll never start. He'll never play. He's too small, too little."

"That just shows his character and his motivation to want to become the best," he said. "He worked his butt off and it obviously showed this year. Just a great motivator, a guy that never left the weight room.


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"Hopefully after this season he got the respect he deserved and he'll make something of himself."

The South defense could nearly form a formidable front seven just with ex-USC stars.

Two other USC defenders, defensive linemen Fili Moala and Kyle Moore, are also playing for the South team. The linebacking trio represented three of the team's four top tacklers, while Moore led the way in sacks.

Plus, Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, who is leading the South team, was a four-year starter for the Trojans defense from 1981-84.

"Another SC guy," Matthews said. "It's been easy because it's much of the same terminology and much of the same defense. The transition's been easy."

Even more so because of all the familiar faces. Just looking at the South roster, it's no wonder the Trojans ranked second nationally in total defense and beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl.

While so many of the Senior Bowl players are largely acclimating to life with strange teammates, USC's representatives have no such problem.

"It's fun having guys that you know in the huddle," Maualuga said. "That makes things a lot slower. We're a lot more comfortable playing side by side with each other."

He stops short of handicapping each USC linebacker's strengths and styles. There are plenty of NFL types and media on hand to do that.

"Everyone brings something to the table," Maualuga said. "Cush is a guy that will blow up the fullback back of the line of scrimmage and make a tackle. He can go downhill and disrupt offensive linemen. I can do the same thing.

"Everyone's different. I'll leave it to you guys how different we are."

For starters, Matthews was only offered a scholarship by one Football Bowl Subdivision team out of high school. That came from then-Idaho coach Nick Holt, who had been USC's defensive coordinator.

The 6-foot-3, 246-pound Matthews has an impressive football pedigree, and has gained two inches of height and 25 pounds of muscle since arriving.

His father, Clay, was an All-American USC linebacker who spent 19 seasons with the NFL's Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons. His uncle, Bruce Matthews, was an All-American guard for the Trojans who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Despite all that, the younger Clay Matthews hardly expected to rise to this position as a pro prospect in the Senior Bowl.

"Absolutely not," he said. "I think every college senior's dream is to end up here. It's been fun. It's been a ride, of ups and downs. Being a walk-on and working my way up to starter on the best defense in the nation. It does mean a lot to end my career on this note, playing in my final game with these guys."

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