Maualuga looking forward
USC linebacker puts last year's arrest in his past and draws strength from the death of his father as he tries to win a starting spot.By Phil Collin
He likes the picture. He likes better that a picture can say 1,000 words, and he doesn't like that captions can bite back.
Rey Maualuga is in a spirited battle for the starting role as USC's middle linebacker. It's the only battle he sees these days, having put a volatile freshman year behind him, yet there are still moments.
Like in the college football preview edition of Sports Illustrated, where he was featured as USC's Big Man on Campus, his flowing locks framing a scowling, glaring face.
"It's a good picture,'' the sophomore said, "but then again, you read the caption and people look at that mean face and associate it ... I've gotten a lot compliments about the picture. But then you read 'misdemeanor' and all that bullcrap.''
In its pithy write-up, the magazine details his arrest for allegedly punching a fellow student last Halloween and plays the "as long as Maualuga can control his aggressiveness'' card.
"It doesn't get to me, but it's a thing, you know?'' the soft-spoken Maualuga said. "I left it way behind.''
The legal troubles were long debated. The resolution by Coach Pete Carroll, putting Maualuga on track to rehabilitate himself with anger-management and Alcoholics Anonymous sessions, are lost in a faraway gaze as Maualuga talks about the impact of his actions.
"No one has ever talked to me about it,'' Maualuga said. "If it does come up, I ain't going to know it. My temper ain't going to explode. I'll smile at 'em, you know?''
He lets out a short laugh. "I'm happy.''
Which puts him ahead of the game. While he was enduring the stares for his off-field behavior, his father, Talatonu, was dying. He succumbed to cancer two days before the Rose Bowl.
Maualuga flew home to Eureka immediately after the game to be with his family.
He has returned to USC with a clear head and a mission.
"I wouldn't say it was a long summer because my dad is in a very special place,'' he said. "So I use that as 'My dad's going to help me get through camp, give me the strength and energy to go out there and practice.' "
Which brings him to more practical issues. He is close to unseating senior Oscar Lua as the Trojans' man in the middle of a defense that will be counted on far more than it was a year ago, when an injury-ravaged squad was carried along by the exploits of Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, LenDale White and Co.
In recent days, he has taken more and more snaps with the first team, playing alongside Dallas Sartz and Keith Rivers, a range of grass where Lua once roamed.
But he is part of what could be the deepest corps of linebackers in the land, and Maualuga understands that playing time will be divided considerably.
Yet if he were to be named the starter -- well, just the body language alone in his reaction tells you what that would mean. He looks up, the determination beaming through the locks of hair stringing over his eyes.
"It's very important,'' the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Maualuga said. "It's early in my career, but it's a goal. I came here last year as a freshman to play as soon as possible and to help the team as best I can.
"We're pushing each other. Oscar's a very great player. He's helping me. He's pushing me and I'm also pushing him.
"It would mean a whole lot. Not only to me, but for my family as well and for everybody out there who doubted me and stuff. It would mean a lot to help the team out. And (help atone for) last year's incident.''
Less than two weeks before the Trojans open the season at Arkansas, it's still a battle. Carroll has settled on the belief that both Lua and Maualuga will play, that it may not matter who starts -- except to the two players in question.
"Here's how we're looking at that deal: Both of these guys are good football players and we love these guys playing for us,'' Carroll said. "Right now, if we played a game, they'd both play. We've given Rey an opportunity to show us what he can do.
"By the end of this week, we'll have a better feel for what we're going to do, who starts. But they're both going to play and they both deserve to play.''
Lua, of course, has the advantage of experience. He is a fierce tackler but is carrying scars from two knee operations.
Maualuga is simply a crusher, and when he learns to find his way to the ball without compromising his teammates in the defensive scheme, the awards will come his way.
This particular linebacker group, which could arguably produce three sets of starters for Pacific-10 Conference schools, is obviously going through a rather competitive preseason camp.
"People will say don't become friends with your position group, because all they're going to do is pull you down and try to get over you,'' Maualuga said. "But we've all become friends, family and we've been helping each other.''
And could this be one of the best in the land?
"We haven't gotten that far as a group, but we do think we're something special,'' he said.
To Maualuga, that would be a picture worth writing about.