YOU GET THE
feeling that every time coach Pete Carroll walks out his front door, he trips
over another high school All-America longing to be a Trojan. With an impressive
recruiting haul that added to a roster already overflowing with talent, it's
little wonder that the Trojans are the popular pick to win the national
championship. The only thing they appear to lack is enough playing time to
distribute among their various stars and stars-in-the-making.
The crowd at
running back, where USC has 10--seriously, 10--former high school stars, might
be the best evidence of the Trojans' wealth of talent. But most of those backs
are notable more for their promise than for their production at the college
level. Rather it's at linebacker, where Brian Cushing, Rey Maualuga and Keith
Rivers are arguably the best three-man unit in the country, that USC's
overabundance at every position is most apparent. "This is the biggest,
fastest, most aggressive linebacking group we've had," says Carroll.
Rivers were first-team All- Pac-10 selections last year, while Cushing was a
second-teamer. All three players are on various watch lists for national awards
this season, and with Cushing returning to his natural strongside linebacker
position, they should form a perfectly complementary unit.
hitter of the trio is the 6' 3", 250-pound Maualuga, a junior middle
linebacker whose skull-rattling tackle of UCLA quarterback Patrick Cowan along
the sideline last December is still a YouTube favorite. "You can tell Rey's
hits by the sound," former center Ryan Kalil, now with the Carolina
Panthers, said after that game. "You don't even have to see them. He
absolutely crushes people." The 6' 4", 240-pound Cushing, also a
junior, is the most versatile of the group. He adapted so well to playing on
the line that he led the Trojans with 13 1/2 tackles-for-loss in 2006 and was
voted defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl, with 2 1/2�sacks and a forced fumble
in USC's 32-18 win over Michigan. Rivers, a 6' 3", 235-pound senior, is the
speediest of the three. Once, when asked for three words to describe his
strengths, he replied, "Fast, physical and . . . fast." He led the team
with 85 tackles and three forced fumbles last season.
like to see the Trojans create more turnovers this season. The defense forced
only 22 last season, down from 38 in 2005, a decline that Carroll is determined
to reverse this fall. These stellar linebackers should help USC get back to
taking the ball away, after which they may have to wrestle some postseason
awards from one another.