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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.