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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.