MOBILE, Ala. -USC linebackers Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews have lived up to the hype that preceded their arrival in Mobile for the Senior Bowl.
While several high-profile prospects opted out of this week's all-star game, electing to wait until the NFL combine to showcase their talent, the USC trio came to the Senior Bowl on a mission to help their draft stalk by competing against the nation's best.
Maualuga (6-2, 254) and Cushing (6-3, 243) were three-year starters at USC. Matthews (6-3, 246) was a Trojan walk-on who earned a scholarship as a sophomore and became a starter last season, helping to anchor USC's top-ranked defense.
"They're really talented," said Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, the Trojans' South team coach and himself a former USC linebacker. "You can see why they played such great defense (at USC) and you can tell that they've been well coached. All three of them have worked hard at conditioning and they've been in the weight room, and you can see it in their bodies. They work at it.
"All three of them are unique in their own ways. They're here competing, and that's what I like about them. I know that's part of the program out there at Southern Cal, that's part of what Pete (Carroll) believes in.
"I don't know if I've ever seen three guys (from one school) come out as heralded as this group."
Cushing, a 2008 AP second-team All-American, has been one of the most impressive players in Mobile this week. He's intriguing to scouts because of his speed and knack for finding the ball, and he has the versatility to play outside linebacker, inside linebacker or defensive end at the next level. Durability might be the only knock on him, as Cushing battled a variety of injuries during his time at USC.
Maualuga, a 2008 AP first-team All-American and the Chuck Bednarik Award winner as the nation's best defensive player, can have a tendency to overpursue plays and freelance. But few can rival the middle linebacker's ferocious hitting ability, which Maualuga has demonstrated against the run and in pass-rushing drills this week.
There has been some talk in Mobile that Maualuga, who like Cushing is a probable first-round pick, might project as only a two-down player in the NFL because he can struggle in pass coverage. One scout I spoke with quickly dismissed that notion, saying that game film of Maualuga shows that he keeps his head on a swivel in coverage and reads plays well.
He and Cushing have lined up next to each other all week during practice in the South team's starting lineup.
"We push each other a lot," Maualuga said. "But we push each other by the way we play and the way we compete during practice. Off the field, we don't talk about, 'I'm better than you; I'm going to get drafted higher than you.' We let our play speak for itself. I'll get to the ball first on one play, and I know Cushing's mindset is, 'I'm gonna have to get to the ball the next time.' That's how we compete."
Matthews is the least publicized of the three USC linebackers, but he has turned heads in Mobile and looks like a shoe-in to be a first-day draft pick.
"To come out with the nation's elite and find out where you rank among them, it means a lot," he said. "For someone like me who's just wanting to continue to let my draft stock soar, this is a perfect opportunity."
Matthews was an impact special teams player and reserve linebacker early in his USC career before starting as a standup "Elephant" defensive end as a senior. Like Cushing, Matthews has the athleticism and fundamental skill set to play a variety of positions.
His football pedigree is about as good as it gets. Matthews' father, Clay Jr., was an All-American linebacker at USC who played in the NFL for 19 seasons. His uncle Bruce was an All-American offensive lineman at USC who became a Hall of Famer for the Houston Oilers.
Follett breaking through:As a Pac-10 linebacker, Cal's Zack Follett (6-2, 231) is used to being overshadowed by players from USC. He's taken advantage of his opportunity this week to show scouts his high intensity and ability to fly around to the football.
"Not too many people pay attention to the linebackers on the West Coast unless you went to 'SC, so I feel like I'm a sleeper coming out and have to prove myself," he said. "I did it on the field all year, but coming out here against the nation's best talent, doing the same thing and just proving myself, I think I've shown that I can play with whoever."
A hard-hitting player, Follett often was used as a blitzer at Cal and is looking to improve in pass coverage and moving in space. He had a nifty interception in 11-on-11 drills on Thursday but looked a bit stiff in his hips when changing direction.
Harris in transition:Nic Harris (6-2, 233), a third-team All-American safety at Oklahoma, made the transition to outside linebacker this week. Scouts are impressed with his combination of size and 4.6 speed in the 40-yard dash, but Harris has work to do in his read-and-react skills in coverage from the linebacker spot.