Penn State might be Linebacker U, but it's USC's linebackers that are stealing the show at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and very well could be the story of the NFL draft in three months.
Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews Jr. have been forces at the Senior Bowl. Maualuga and Cushing have been considered top-15 picks for quite awhile, but the hard-working Matthews — the son of former Cleveland Browns linebacker Clay Matthews — might force his way into the second round or even late in the first.
"It's a good group, they're really talented," Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, who is coaching the South squad at the Senior Bowl, told reporters. "You can see why they played such great defense. It's clear that they've been well-coached, that all three have worked hard at conditioning. They've been in the weight room, and you can see it. All three of them are unique in their own ways, and I think they're good football players."
With USC coach Pete Carroll running a 3-4 defense at times, all three could fit into the Packers' plans. General manager Ted Thompson and his staff have spent plenty of time watching those linebackers.
A lot of things will change before the April 25-26 draft, but Maualuga and Cushing project as top-10 draft picks, so one or both might be off the board when it's the Packers' turn at No. 9.
Maualuga, a middle linebacker in USC's base 4-3, and Cushing, a strong-side linebacker in USC's 4-3, would be middle linebackers in a 3-4, NFL Network expert Mike Mayock said in a conference call from Mobile on Wednesday.
"What I see is the prototype 3-4 inside linebacker," Mayock said of Maualuga. "It's gotta be a guy who can deal with big bodies, comes downhill. You play in a lot of traffic, and Maualuga can handle that."
The 255-pound Maualuga is a fluid and punishing hitter. He won the Chuck Bednarik Award as college football's top defensive player as a senior and was a consensus first-team All-American. He tallied a team-high 79 tackles.
"(Maualuga) is the real deal on the field, but he makes everything look so easy that it doesn't even look like he's playing hard," one scout told our Chris Steuber.
Cushing's versatility would make him an intriguing pick if he lasts to No. 9. The Packers' interest in him would depend on several factors, not the least of which is where general manager Ted Thompson projects Cushing's best position and where new coordinator Dom Capers elects to put Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk.
At a Senior Bowl practice on Tuesday, Cushing showed his 255-pound frame can pack a mighty wallop when he blasted Liberty running back Rashad Jennings on a screen. He had a team-high 10.5 tackles for loss as a senior, and he's adept at playing over tight ends.
"He's not afraid of anything," Mayock's NFL Network colleague, Charles Davis, said. "I think he's very instinctive. I just love the way he plays. He will light you up. There's no ifs, ands or buts about it. His best football is ahead of him."
The third Trojans linebacker in Mobile is Matthews, who walked on at USC five years ago as a 200-pound safety. Now, he's a 246-pounder with a chiseled physique. He could develop into a fine outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. He had 4.5 sacks as a senior defensive end and is impressing scouts with his ability to get around the corner.
"He's got a chip on his shoulder because his dad and his uncle and his brother play big-time football, and this kid didn't get a scholarship offer to USC," Mayock said. "He's not as naturally gifted as father but he's worked so hard that he's at the point now where he might a second-round pick."
Or, perhaps, higher than that.
"If I had to pick one of them, I'd go with Matthews," an AFC scout told Steuber. "His motor is off the charts and his versatility is unique. He brings it on every play. I can't say that about the other two."
Plus, he's USC's two-time special teams player of the year.
"No matter what you pay him for, this kid is going to get on the field both in your base package and on special teams," Mayock said.
Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Lambeau Level forum.
UA Senior Bowl: USC LBs are a hit
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