NCF Nation: Kaluka Maiava


Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller


Poor ole USC. What is it to do? All of its wonderful, scary linebackers are gone to the NFL. Boy, are the Trojans going to be in trouble in 2009.

No more Maualuga, Cushing -- Cush! -- Matthews or Maiava. Even the names sounded slightly menacing. Heck, Rey Maualuga even became a folk hero and YouTube sensation for his blow-up hits.
 
 Ric Tapia/Icon SMI
 Middle linebacker Chris Galippo leads the Trojans with 32 tackles.


Into their place stepped Smith, Morgan and Galippo. That's two common, yawn-inducing surnames and a third that recalls a failed campaign in World War I.

Poor ole USC. Five games into the season, its no-name defense -- other than fancypants safety Taylor Mays -- only ranks fourth in the nation in scoring (8.6 points per game), sixth in total defense (238.6 yards per game) and fifth in run defense (64.8 yards per game). It has surrendered no -- zero -- touchdown passes. It's the only team in the nation with a clean sheet.

Seems like these no-names aren't half-bad, particularly the linebackers.

"You can't say enough good things about their defense," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. "And they're losing all those -- everyone's, 'Oh, they're losing all these guys to the NFL from last year!' and it doesn't seem like they've missed a beat."

Weis has reason for concern as he prepares for a visit from the sixth-ranked Trojans on Saturday. Sure, his offense averages 33 points a game and ranks 10th in the nation with 470 yards per contest, but the Fighting Irish have scored three points against USC in their past two meetings and haven't faced a defense that even approaches the Trojans' depth and talent level.

And this USC defense, as shocking as it might be to say about a unit that replaced eight starters, including four linebackers who were NFL draft picks, might be just as good as -- or at least comparable to -- last year's unit, which was widely regarded as one of the best in college football history.

It starts at linebacker, where Chris Galippo, a sophomore in the middle, and Michael Morgan and Malcolm Smith, juniors on the outside, are nearly matching the production of Maualuga, Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews and Kaluka Maiava.

It's a different style, of course, starting with the fact the Trojans are back to their standard 4-3 look after in large part playing a 3-4 last year. The Trojans' linebacker-heavy front in 2008 was more physically intimidating but not as fast and not always as sound as this year's crew.

"Our guys now are very disciplined, very strict about everything they are doing -- probably more accurately fitting in runs than the other guys had done in the past when they'd kind of clutter their way through," said Trojans coach Pete Carroll, who calls the defensive plays.

Morgan leads the Pac-10 with 9.5 tackles for a loss. Smith has played well, but has struggled with a sprained ankle, though he should be full-go this weekend.

The revelation has been Galippo. He leads the team with 32 tackles -- five for a loss -- with an interception and four pass breakups. A good but not great athlete -- unlike nearly everyone else who starts for USC -- he's showcased uncanny instincts that often guide him toward big plays, most notably his first-quarter interception and 51-yard return at Ohio State that set up the Trojans' first touchdown in an 18-15 victory.

"Galippo's speed on the field is because of his reading ability and his instincts -- he plays fast on the football field," Carroll said.

Galippo, a sophomore, also seems to get motivated by perceived slights. Early in the season, he talked about how no one knew who he or his fellow linebackers were. This week, he recalled a recruiting visit to Notre Dame when he felt Weis ignored him in order to focus on quarterback Jimmy Clausen.

"They were trying to get Jimmy to commit," Galippo said. "It was no big deal. I came home and committed to USC about three days later."

Of course, Galippo knows the deal. Standouts at USC don't get ignored very long. They start to make all-conference and All-American lists and then NFL draft gurus start ranking them.

Galippo, though outgoing and articulate, notes that he, Smith and Morgan aren't the "big personality" guys of the past. He emphasizes staying humble as the talk of rebuilding ends and the discussion transitions toward celebrating the next great Trojans defense.

"The better we play and the more games we win, and the more big-time offenses we shut down, the notoriety is going to go up," he said. "People will start noticing us. But we've got to keep the mentality of going out every day and working hard and continuing to try to earn our spot. As soon as we start thinking you're big time and start taking things for granted, you don't play as well."

Poor ole USC?

Correction: That's poor young USC. Galippo, Smith and Morgan all are expected to return in 2010.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Not to brag, but I know everybody.

Yes, I'm so cool that I can practically recite every Pac-10 team's starting lineup. Practically. At least by September.

[I see all of you mustering Chevy Chase's perfectly mocking, "God, I admire you," from Fletch at this moment.]

That's why Rory Cavaille caused me travail. When he appeared on Oregon's post-spring depth chart with the No. 1 offense, I, well, had no freaking idea who he was.

Ergo, today's topic: Out of nowhere.

Rory Cavaille, WR, Oregon: Cavaille moved up the pecking order when Aaron Pflugrad decided to transfer. The 6-foot-3, 207-pound senior and former walk-on has caught just six career passes. But he's smart -- he was honorable mention Pac-10 All-Academic last year -- and he has good hands. The Ducks get an influx of talent at receiver from their 2008 recruiting class, but Cavaille apparently has played his way into the mix.

D.J. Shoemate, FB, USC: Pete Carroll loves fullbacks -- just ask him about Stanley Havili sometime (if you have an extra half hour) -- and Carroll loved Shoemate, a sophomore, after spring practices, telling the Orange County Register that he was the spring's most-improved player. Shoemate isn't a complete mystery, of course. He was a marquee recruit and he started the Rose Bowl when Havili was academically ineligible, but he has moved around a bit, seeing action before at receiver and tailback.

Kai Maiava, C, UCLA: The Bruins' offensive line is loaded with questions, but Maiava is a firm answer. Barring injury, he will start at center. He sat out last season after transferring from Colorado and missed half of spring ball with an ankle injury, but he's shown enough already to solidify his standing. As for his football bloodlines, yes, he's former USC linebacker Kaluka Maiava's brother and his uncle is pro wrestler/actor "The Rock" (Dwayne Johnson).

David Pa'aluhi, LB, Oregon State: Pa'aluhi wasn't a complete unknown -- the sophomore was impressive enough to top the depth chart entering spring -- but my guess is that, outside of folks who follow the Beavers, he's going to draw a "Who?" at least until the games start. First thing to know: Don't pick a fight with him. He's a mixed martial arts guy. Second, he's fast, reportedly running the 40 under 4.5. And he's got upside, considering he started playing football his senior year of high school.

Alex Debniak, RB-LB, Stanford: Coach Jim Harbaugh gushed about Debniak this spring as a guy who could see significant action at strongside linebacker and running back. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound sophomore appeared in eight games as a true freshman and finished with four total tackles. He and Will Powers were practically an either-or at linebacker this spring.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

We're throwing at the NFL combine.

  • Former Arizona receiver Mike Thomas continues to be short, but Money Mike also continues to do things that figure to make him a lot of coin when the NFL draft rolls around. Like run faster than Percy Harvin. (And note that former UA OT Eben Britton's 40 time probably won't hurt him either).
  • And... not to let that combine list linger or anything... but who would have thought that USC linebacker Kaluka Maiava would do just as many reps with 225 pounds -- 30 -- as Brian Cushing, and both would leave sure-fire top-10 LB pick Aaron Curry in their dust (25)?
  • Speaking of Cushing... he tries to respond to rumors of steroid use.
  • Speaking of draft prospects, whatever happened to Rudy Carpenter's? He needs to convince scouts that a big arm isn't the only thing that matters.
  • Andy Levitre, late of Oregon State, talks... you guessed it! -- NFL combine.
  • Lots of Pac-10 names -- Patrick Chung, Rulon Davis, Keenan Lewis -- in this combine story.
  • Tim Hundley will leave SMU to become UCLA's new secondary coach. Hundley was Rick Neuheisel's defensive coordinator at Colorado and Washington.
  • It looks like Washington will have an easier time funding new uniforms than funding a massive renovation of Husky Stadium.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Ten things to consider, underline or anticipate heading into the weekend.

1. Dear Arizona -- Get the ball to Rob Gronkowski and Mike Thomas: What does a dominating running game do for a team? Well, it wasn't just that Stanford had 286 yards rushing last weekend in its win over Arizona, it was that it ran 72 total plays vs. 57 for the Wildcats. What could a team do with 15 more plays? A lot. But if you only have 57, more than six of them should involve tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Mike Thomas.

2. Nate Longshore needs to grab hold of Cal's quarterback spot: California would love to run right at Arizona like Stanford did, but the Bears are down two starting offensive linemen and struggled just two weeks ago to get the running game going at home against Arizona State (79 yards on the ground). While it will help to get speedy Jahvid Best back, he's not going to give Cal 25 carries coming back from a dislocated elbow. That means Nate Longshore, making his second consecutive start, will need to make plays in the passing game. It doesn't help that receiver Michael Calvin was lost for the year this week to a knee injury. But Longshore should be plenty motivated to erase the three-interception performance he had in Tucson in 2006, an upset defeat that cost the Bears their first Rose Bowl berth since 1958.

3. How much does Washington still care?: The Huskies' players don't live in caves. They know that their fan base is hollering for coach Tyrone Willingham's coaching noggin'. They also can look at the guy under center and know he's no longer their leader, Jake Locker, who's done for the year with a thumb injury. While last season's bitter defeat at Oregon State should serve as motivation to play hard in front of the home fans, it will be interesting to see if the Huskies fight all four quarters if things start to get out of hand. And what if the Beavers jump on them early? Will a white flag come out?

4. Beavers stop the pass, own the field: Washington senior guard Casey Bulyca, who rivals center Juan Garcia as the Huskies most physical player, underwent knee surgery Tuesday and is done for the year. The line has been mostly mediocre this year, in any event. The Huskies don't really have a starting tailback, with Willie Griffin, Brandon Johnson and Terrance Dailey shuffling in and out. Locker, the best run threat, is, again, out. The Huskies average 2.9 yards per rush, and Oregon State's run defense has improved dramatically since yielding 239 yards at Penn State. This means it's up to UW quarterback Ronnie Fouch and his young receivers to make plays. But the Beavers likely will welcome the pass because safety Al Afalava and cornerbacks Brandon Hughes and Keenan Lewis are back to full speed after nursing injuries previous weeks.

5. USC will not be at full speed at Washington State: USC is banged up and it might make sense for coach Pete Carroll to lean toward caution with players who are borderline-ready to play at Washington State. Running back Joe McKnight (toe) won't make the trip. Neither will defensive end Everson Griffen and offensive lineman Butch Lewis (both are sick). Offensive guards Jeff Byers (knee) and Zack Heberer (toe), linebackers Brian Cushing (shoulder) and Kaluka Maiava (foot) and tight end Blake Ayles (groin) also missed significant practice time this week.

6. Don't hold the ball, Kevin Lopina: A team (hopefully) never expects to lose, but Washington State's prime directive is to get quarterback Kevin Lopina safely through USC's visit. Lopina is making his first start since going down with a back injury on Sept. 20 against Portland State, and the Cougars have a bye next week for him to further get his health, rhythm and timing back. The Trojans put a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, often with just a four-man rush. Lopina needs to get the ball away in a hurry. That means three-step drops, roll outs, a two count and throw -- heave the ball into the stands if necessary. Just don't give up the sack, the INT or get hurt. The Cougars Nos. 2 and 3 quarterbacks are done for the season, and the guys next in line are a walk-on and a true freshman, so they really need Lopina to keep taking snaps.

7. Can Stanford run up the middle on UCLA?: Stanford has become the Pac-10's most physical running team. Running back Toby Gerhart is a 230-pound guy who's not afraid of contact, and the Cardinal line, led by center Alex Fletcher, has been the conference's best unit to this point of the season. But UCLA has perhaps the conference's best defensive tackle tandem in Brian Price and Brigham Harwell. Can Fletcher and his guards move these guys out of the way? The going should be far tougher up the middle, though the Bruins haven't been dominant against the run this year by any means, ranking eighth in the Pac-10 with 171 yards given up per game.

8. UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft needs to put four quarters together: Stanford is going to gang up on the run and try to force Craft to win the game. For much of the season, the Cardinal secondary looked vulnerable, but last weekend it did a masterful job containing Arizona's top targets, Rob Gronkowski and Mike Thomas, and didn't allow quarterback Willie Tuitama to throw a touchdown pass. Stanford also brings a lot of blitzes (see 19 sacks on the season). Craft has had fits and starts of success, and he seems to go in and out of rhythm throughout a game. He was sacked six times by Oregon and he threw a lot of ill-advised passes that were dropped by Ducks defenders. If the Bruins are going to defend their home turf, Craft needs to make plays consistently.

9. The solution for Arizona -- Stop the run: Arizona has lost twice this season. In both games, a power back ran all over the Wildcats undersized defense. But Cal doesn't have a Rodney Ferguson (New Mexico, 158 yards) or a Toby Gerhart (116 yards), who both tip the scales at 230 pounds. If the Wildcats force the Bears to throw into a secondary that is the defense's strength that will help in multiple ways. Not only will it ease the pressure on the defensive front, it also will stop the clock more often and allow the potent Arizona offen
se to get more plays.

10. Can any Pac-10 teams win on the road?: Pac-10 teams are 6-20 on the road this year -- 2-8 in nonconference play and 4-12 in conference. While Washington and Washington State have proved hospitable for obvious reasons -- stinking -- the rest of the Pac-10 has treated guests with disdain. Stanford and California are both looking to move up in the conference pecking order, but in order to do that they will have to prove they can win on the road someplace other than Washington or Washington State.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

 
 Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
 Rey Maualuga had 10.5 tackles for a loss last year.

LOS ANGELES -- The term comes up more than a few times during this highly charged week: "scary."

Such as, "Coach Tressel, is Rey Maualuga scary?"

Jim Tressel, Ohio State's coach, doesn't want to bite on the loaded word, not completely anyway. "I don't look at it as scary because I don't have the ball."

USC defensive end Kyle Moore almost seems bothered that folks refer to his good friend, his soft-spoken friend, his newly svelte friend (down 26 pounds from his Rose Bowl MVP weight to 247), Rey Maualuga, as "scary."

"Rey's not scary," Moore said. "It's just the way he plays on the field that gets him perceived as scary."

Well, yeah.

Now, Moore adds, Brian Cushing. He's scary. That's a notion seconded by defensive tackle Fili Moala.

"We're all kind of fiery at times but Cush is nonstop, no holds barred, all out -- that, 'I'm going to give it to you before you give it to me,'" he said. What puts Cushing over the top, though, is this: He's from Jersey.

Cue the music from the "Psycho" shower scene.

"He's got that little accent," Moala says with a grin that suggests that, oh, just maybe that characteristic comes up every once in a while during locker room jesting.

In a week of hot topics -- hey, did you know No. 5 Ohio State is visiting No. 1 USC on Saturday? -- the comparison of the linebacking corps has been scorching.

The Buckeyes boast James Laurinaitis, whose trophy case features the 2007 Butkus and 2006 Nagurski awards, and Marcus Freeman, who was second-team All-Big Ten. The Trojans counter with Maualuga and Cushing, both preseason All-Americans.

All four are going to make a lot of money playing on Sundays, but first they have to endure endless questions about the opposing unit and how they match up.

"It doesn't match up at all because we're not going to be on the field at the same time," Maualuga reasonably points out.

Still, this exciting, Rose Bowl-like showdown features an extraordinary amount of talent, especially at linebacker.

"It's a really cool opportunity for people to watch these guys on both sides of the ball," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "It's rare that you would have this many guys who would have big futures, big upsides as you see in this game."

Cushing, Maualuga and Laurinaitis got acquainted this summer at the festivities surrounding their selection as Playboy All-Americans. Photos that circulated on the Internet suggested they all got along famously.

"Besides being a great linebacker, [Laurinaitis is] a great person, he's got a great personality," Maualuga said. "You'd think a guy with that stature, who's gotten all the accolades and awards he's got, he'd be a different type of person. But he's down-to-earth, unselfish. A complete, great person."

Added Cushing, "He's a good kid."

Cushing has battled injuries throughout his career, but became a national figure when he won the 2007 Rose Bowl MVP after recording 2.5 sacks in the victory over Michigan. He's 6-foot-3, 255 pounds and carries as much body fat as a petrified tree.

Maualuga, whose combination of size and speed and Samoan heritage makes it impossible to not introduce Junior Seau comparisons, was the Trojans leading tackler a year ago and earned All-Pac-10 honors for a second-consecutive year. He had 10.5 tackles for a loss and became a YouTube sensation for his numerous blowup hits.

"[Maualuga] brings a presence," Laurinaitis said. "He's a tremendous blitzer. Quarterbacks know they better watch out where 58 is. He does a great job running to the ball. If you're a ball carrier, you know where he is, because if you don't and he catches you off guard, you're going to be on ESPN."

Carroll sees differences in the tandems. He describes the Trojans "classic" linebackers as physical, tough and capable in space and tight areas.

The Buckeyes unit is a smaller and, Carroll intimated, perhaps quicker. It's also clear that Laurinaitis is a player Carroll can't help but appreciate.

"Laurinaitis can do everything; he's an extraordinary player," Carroll said.

There's an oh-by-the-way here, too. As Tressel pointed out: "Don't discount 43 either -- he gets after it."

No. 43 would be USC's third linebacker, senior Kaluka Maiava, who led the Trojans with six tackles at Virginia from his weakside spot. Also, Clay Matthews, listed as a defensive end, plays a hybrid position -- the "elephant" -- that's closer to a linebacker than a pure, hand-on-the-ground end.

For Ohio State, the weakside 'backer is Ross Homan, whose 10 tackles in the Buckeyes first two games is not far behind the pace of Laurinaitis (14) and Freeman (12).

Both groups of linebackers have spent the week discounting Saturday as a showdown of the nation's top two units on its top two defenses. It's all about team, they say.

But it doesn't take too much prodding for them to admit there's a little bit of extra juice to the matchup.

"Seeing [Laurinaitis] across the field and knowing who we are playing is going to bring a little more out of me," said Cushing, who's not allowing hip and wrist injuries to keep him off the field.

If it brings a little more out of the crews on both teams, it could make it a long afternoon for both offenses.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller 

Read and reflect...

  • Scott Wolf of the LA Daily News reports that USC's backup linebacker Chris Galippo needs back surgery (again), which will knock him out the first part of the season. Sure, the Trojans are deep at linebacker, but Galippo is a real talent who would have been in the regular playing rotation. Here's Wolf's follow-up.
  • Stewart Mandel thinks Arizona State under Dennis Erickson is the most likely candidate to provide an annual foil for USC. And, by the way, Mandel takes on sleepy Pac-10 fans who don't write him enough.
  • Fellow college football blogger Graham Watson thought this highly amusing. But for us on the West Coast, it just looks like Pete Carroll is looking to improve his ground game by going to sea. Some teams seek firepower. Only Carroll goes nuclear.
  • Not to get too USC here (someone already told me I was being "too Oregon"), but here's a nice story in the Honolulu Advertiser on USC's "other" linebacker, Kaluka Maiava. He's pretty clear about his expectations for the season:

"The past three years we should have been national champs. We've tasted it, but it's been a real slap in the face," Maiava said, referring to losses to Stanford and Oregon last year. "We can go all the way; nothing should stop us. The only team that can beat us is us."

  • Good news for Washington fans: center Juan Garcia told the Seattle Times that he's growing more confident that he will be able to play in 2008 after suffering a severe foot injury during spring practices. I wrote this story about Garcia this spring. He's a true college football success story, a guy who came from a tough background and made something of himself. He also is a nasty dude on the field, which I'm sure we all appreciate.
  • Speaking of the Huskies, former Seattle Post-Intelligencer colleague Jim Moore (the King Coug of Seattle) often does so with a biting wit. The Northwest's favorite gadfly caught up with former UW QB Chris Chandler, and Chandler had some interesting things to say about the direction of the program.
  • Ah, my pet cause: non-conference scheduling. Wizard of Odds breaks down the conferences, from the cowards to the brave (credit and kudos goes to the study's originator at The National Championship Issue.)

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