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News » After Curry, expect a flurry of Southern Cal linebackers to spice up draft


After Curry, expect a flurry of Southern Cal linebackers to spice up draft


After Curry, expect a flurry of Southern Cal linebackers to spice up draft
It


appears that Southern Cal has become a one-stop shop for teams in need of a quality linebacker in this year's NFL draft.

As many as three could be selected in the first round -- outside linebackers Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews, and inside linebacker Rey Maualuga -- conjuring memories of past Trojans Junior Seau, Jack Del Rio, Willie McGinest, Chris Claiborne, Lofa Tatupu and Keith Rivers.

Aaron Curry of Wake Forest is expected to be the first linebacker taken Saturday, perhaps going to Kansas City at No. 3. But the three USC linebackers won't be too far behind, all projecting to be off the board by the end of the first round.

A fourth, Kaluka Maiava, is targeted for the fourth round.

"I don't know that I've ever seen three players come out that are as heralded as this group, and we've had some good linebackers come through there," said Del Rio, a former Saints linebacker and current coach at Jacksonville.

"I can't remember anything like this in recent memory, maybe in the '60s when Penn State had linebackers Jack Ham and Dennis Onkotz,' " NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "It's amazing."

Most draft analysts predict Cushing will be the first of the trio selected, perhaps at No. 14 by the Saints. Several mock drafts match Cushing with New Orleans, while others have Ohio State prospects going to the Black and Gold -- cornerback Malcolm Jenkins or running back Chris "Beanie" Wells.

"If they're looking at Cushing at 14, you've got to ask yourself at what level of an upgrade is he over (current Saints linebackers) Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle, and how does he fit there," Mayock said.

Cushing can play strongside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme on first and second downs (which are typical running downs in the NFL), but he could be a liability on passing downs.

"I don't know how well he'll do on third down, which is the most important down in the NFL," Mayock said.

Maualuga is a prototypical inside linebacker who can stay on the field on passing downs, but his stock has dropped a little because of a relatively slow time in the 40-yard dash (4.81 seconds).

"You've got to satisfy yourself that he's good enough in pass coverage to be a three-down linebacker, but he's an explosive downhill force," Mayock said. "He'll probably go between 20 and 32."

Matthews, whose father, grandfather and uncle all played in the NFL, is considered to be the most athletic of the USC linebackers. Originally a walk-on, he earned a scholarship before the 2006 season and finally broke into the starting lineup in 2008.

"He moves like a 235-pound safety," Mayock said of Matthews, who impressed scouts with a 40 time of 4.57 seconds at USC's Pro Day. "On third down, I know he'll be in the game either as nickel linebacker or a three-down linebacker, and he'll also be one of your best special teams' players from Day 1.

"People who think he's just a try-hard overachiever are wrong. He can rush the passer better than any other USC linebacker. I think he'll be a 10-year starter."

Cushing and Matthews have been dogged by reports that each tested positive for steroids at the NFL Scouting Combine. Each has denied the reports.

"These rumors are absolutely false," said USC Coach Pete Carroll in a release on the school's Web site. "If they were found positive, Clay and Cush would have been notified weeks ago, which they weren't, and all of the NFL teams would have been notified too, which they weren't."

Carroll said he spoke with the NFL testing service and verified that both players tested clean.

"They're both men of outstanding character, and they never tested positive for anything here," Carroll said.

Cushing said he has been up front with teams, telling them "straight up that it's not true."

"You can ask my strength coach, you can ask my position coach, anyone that's ever grown up with me, been on my team, and they'll tell you what kind of person I am.

"It's nothing I've been a part of, and I never will be. But that's up to the people to decide, who wants to get me and who doesn't. People can think what they want."

Other teams that might be interested in the top three USC linebackers are Houston (No. 15), New England (No. 23), Atlanta (No. 24) and Miami (No. 25).

The Falcons are in the process of revamping their defense after losing five starters in free agency. All four USC linebackers recently worked out in Atlanta.

"The philosophy of (Atlanta General Manager) Thomas Dimitroff is to always be needs-based," Falcons Coach Mike Smith said without tipping his hand. "You're not going to see us taking the best available athlete. We've identified needs to be addressed."

While the USC linebackers are grabbing most of the pre-draft attention at their position, Curry is regarded as the best of the class. In fact, Mayock considers Curry the top overall prospect.

Curry played strongside linebacker in 2008, but he has the ability to play any linebacker position in any scheme. In a draft full of risks, Mayock said Curry is the "safest pick."

"I believe a safe pick means I can come in instantly and make an impact on anybody's defense," Curry said. "And my versatility as a linebacker to be able to play in the 3-4, inside or outside, or 4-3, inside or outside, you just can't go wrong."

Curry distanced himself from other linebackers at the combine, finishing with the fastest 40-yard dash (4.56 seconds) and 60-yard shuttle (11.35 seconds), longest broad jump (10 feet, 4 inches) and tying with two others for the highest vertical jump (37 inches).

"He's not going to be a bust," ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. "He's going to give you everything he has. He's got great character. He's got versatility. He can cover. He can rush the passer. Aaron Curry would probably fall into that category as the safest guy. Maybe not a boom, but certainly not a bust."

. . . . . . .

Brian Allee-Walsh can be reached at ballee-walsh@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3805.



Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: April 19, 2009

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Reagan Mauia Name: Reagan Mauia
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