History will be made in this year's NFL talent lottery when USC linebackers BRIAN CUSHING, CLAY MATTHEWS and REY MAUALUGA become the first trio of players from the same unit to be selected in the first round. The burning question: Who comes first?
Welcome to Pro Day at USC, college football's version of the Oscars. Sorry, can't let you in unless your name's on the list. The last time this event was open to the public—in 2006, when Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, among others, worked out—nearly 3,000 people turned up, and the fire marshal got his nose out of joint.
So it was invitation-only on April 1 when, under a royal-blue sky six miles south of the Kodak Theatre, some 500 scouts, coaches, general managers, agents and assorted remora thronged the Cromwell Track & Field Stadium on the Southern California campus to eyeball coach Pete Carroll's latest bumper crop. There was quarterback Mark Sanchez, throwing with more zip and accuracy than he had at the NFL combine five weeks earlier. After completing his scheduled workout, Sanchez was happy to oblige representatives of the Detroit Lions, who asked him to air out a few extra deep passes. No offense to Sanchez, whose eagerness to please practically shouted I am not Matt Leinart! but there was a bit more buzz on the other side of the ball.
A year ago four USC players were taken in the first round, a number the program is likely to match when the 2009 draft kicks off in Manhattan on Saturday afternoon. Of those four probable first-round picks, three—Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews III and Rey Maualuga—spent much of their careers slumped in the chairs of the same second-floor Heritage Hall meeting room, where they were hectored, praised and otherwise molded by Ken Norton Jr., the former NFL All-Pro now in his sixth season as the Trojans' linebackers coach.
While it's rare for a school to have three or more first-rounders, it would be unprecedented for three in the same position group to go that high. As the trio of 22-year-olds known as Cush, Clay and Rey sweated through Pro Day field drills, along with undersized outside 'backer Kaluka Maiava, who is projected as merely a middle-round pick, hard-boiled Indianapolis Colts scout John Becker told Carroll he'd never seen so much talent at one position on the same team at the same time.
It was with some justification, then, that at the end of those drills the linebackers drew close, joined their right hands and shouted, for the final time together and without apologies to Penn State, "L-B-U!"
While a half-dozen scouts and NFL personnel types interviewed by SI agreed that Cushing, Matthews and Maualuga should all be off the board before the start of the second round, there is no consensus on the order in which they'll go.
Maualuga won the '08 Bednarik Award, bestowed on college football's top defender, but it was Cushing whom teammates elected as one of USC's captains. Stout at the point of attack and no friend to the tight end ("At the end of the game, my goal is for him to hate me more than I hate him"), Cushing is hard-nosed, smart and versatile. Jacking up his value is his ability to play a variety of linebacker positions in 4--3 or 3--4 schemes, although one director of college scouting wonders if the 6'3" 243-pounder has the "shock"—brute strength—to stalemate guards as an inside guy in a 3--4.
No player in this draft packs more shock than the 6'2", 249-pound Maualuga, an explosive prototype Mike (middle linebacker) whose tackles Baltimore Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta likens to "train wrecks." DeCosta won't get an argument from Juice Williams (Illinois), Patrick Cowan (UCLA), Rudy Carpenter (Arizona State) or any of the other quarterbacks whose thoraxes number 58 has compressed, but there are questions about whether Maualuga and Cushing are sufficiently nimble in coverage to be three-down players in the NFL.
No such doubts surround the 6'3", 240-pound Matthews, whom experts judge the safest pick of this Trojans trio. A solid Sam (strongside 'backer), he is the fastest and most athletic of the three and the most effective pass rusher. He's also the best on special teams, which was his ticket out of football obscurity. "He's not great at any one thing," judges ex--Cleveland Browns G.M. Phil Savage, "but he's really good at almost everything."