One of the best linebackers in the country, USC's Rey Maualuga is a tremendous physical presence on the Trojans defense and has been a consistent force. At 6-foot-2, 260 pounds, Maualuga is the prototypical inside linebacker that any team in the NFL would love to get their hands on, but they will have to wait another year.
Maualuga, after an outstanding performance in the Rose Bowl [four tackles, three sacks, an interception and a forced fumble], could have easily declared for the NFL Draft. But after witnessing the success his former teammate Keith Rivers enjoyed by staying his senior season, Maualuga decided to stay and define his game.
In this Scout.com exclusive, Chris Steuber asked Maualuga about his performance in the Rose Bowl, his decision to stay in school for his senior season, and becoming a vocal leader on a young USC team.
Maualuga was named defensive player of the game for his performance against Illinois in the Rose Bowl.
Chris Steuber: Take me back to the Rose Bowl this past season. You guys dominated Illinois, defeating them 49 – 17, and a major reason for it was because of your masterful performance. I'm sure you remember a lot about everything leading up to that game, but how special was that game for you?
Rey Maualuga: It was really special. All the preparation that went into that game and with everyone talking about Illinois made it that much better to win. I was nervous, but the coaches did a great job getting us prepared for the game. We did a lot of film study and put in a lot of extra work on the field prior to the game. It was a crazy time.
I woke up that morning and everybody seemed to have a little more bounce in their step; everyone was hype. I was actually sitting in the locker room, and I was telling the guys before the game that if Brian Cushing can win the MVP of the Rose Bowl [which occurred on New Year's Day 2007], why couldn't I win it today? I don't know what it was, but I just pictured myself intercepting the ball, picking a fumble up for a touchdown or just making a big play; it just happened. I was in the right place at the right time all day. I was focused and ready, and a couple days before the game my aunt passed away, my dad's sister. I took that into consideration and it motivated me to play the way that I did.
CS: After your performance in the Rose Bowl, everyone, including me, thought you would declare for the NFL Draft. But in the end, you decided to stay at USC for your senior season. What made you decide to stay, and did anyone influence your decision?
Maualuga: Keith Rivers played a big part in my decision, and I know he played a big part in Brian Cushing's decision as well. Our coaches told us to go and talk to Keith and see what his thoughts were on staying in school for our senior years. Brian and I just talked to him and he told us even though it's hard to come back to school another year, it's worth it, and it will pay off in the long run. To see his progression and the way he got better, it obviously paid off for him to get drafted in the top-ten.
CS: What did you see Keith Rivers improve on during his senior season that stood out to you and made you believe this off-season that you still had room to improve?
Maualuga: I think he became more instinctive in certain situations. It just seemed like he was faster to the line of scrimmage and BOOM, he delivered some big time hits. He always kept his feet going; the coaches always told me to watch Keith's feet, watch his feet; he never crosses over, he's always shuffling. He was always great in coverage and he made a lot of plays on passing downs, and that's something I have to work on. I have to be more disciplined in passing situations and know where I have to be within the defense.
CS: Losing Keith Rivers on defense is a huge loss, but one thing that may be hard to replace is his leadership qualities. Rivers was a vocal leader on defense and with his loss, the team will most likely look towards you to step up. Is that something you are looking to improve on, being more vocal?
Maualuga: Keith Rivers and Thomas Williams really taught me a lot last year. I wasn't a vocal leader last year; I didn't talk too much, because I left that to Keith and Thomas. This year that's what I want to do, go out on the field, call the plays, and at the same time, make sure my teammates can hear me; feel my presence out on the field. I want to be that person to get on somebody if they're not running full speed to the football. I want to be a different person than what I was last year, as far as being more vocal.
CS: How big of a transition will it be for you to step up as a vocal leader this year, especially since you're not a vocal guy?
Maualuga: It will be a transition, but I just have to get comfortable with the team and my surroundings and develop the vocal aspects of my game and where it will be needed. I might as well get started with this interview… [Laughs].
Maualuga looks to improve his instincts this season and have more plays like this interception that occurred during last year's Rose Bowl.
CS: [Laughs]… Why not, right? Talk to me about your team. On defense, you lost a lot of key starters and leadership in players like Rivers, Sedrick Ellis, Lawrence Jackson and Terrell Thomas. How do you guys make up for those losses?
Maualuga: I give major props to everybody who left, but we're going to be good this year. They did a great job for us last year, but I think guys like myself, Fili Moala, Kyle Moore, Taylor Mays and Kevin Ellison will step up; everybody here is a year older and that will help. We're all looking forward to this season, and we're out to do something great this year.
CS: What are your personal expectations for this season?
Maualuga: Man, I didn't come back this year to do the same stuff I did last year; I want to improve day-by-day in practice and get better in each game. I want to improve on what I did last year and be even more productive.
CS: Is there something specific that you want to improve on, or is it your overall game that you want to continue to elevate?
Maualuga: I want to improve my overall game. I want to become more instinctive. Instead of reacting to plays and just running to the football, I want to know what's coming at me before the ball is snapped, so I can attack the opposition harder and make more plays behind the line of scrimmage. I just want to become a smarter football player.
CS: It's early and we're only in June, but you guys have been working out together for about a month now, and you know what your teammates are capable of. In addition to being young on defense, you guys are also young on offense. With that said, how do you foresee this season unfolding for USC?
Maualuga: Even though we're young, we have a lot of heart. I see determination in our offense and the young offensive linemen; I know Jeff Byers [starting OG] is going to kick it up a notch. We're going to go places. I can see us doing some great things this season and surprising a lot of people. I know a lot of people don't think we're going to go as far as we have in the past, but from what I've seen, we're hungry.
Everybody is determined to get to that one goal, and although we don't want to get ahead of ourselves, I want us to end up in Miami to play for a National Championship. We all talk about going to Miami in January and that just pumps us up. It allows us to fight through things when we get tired during workouts, or to finish that last rep lifting, because that's our focus, and that's where we want to be.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999.