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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Trojans' Maualuga on verge of greatness

Trojans' Maualuga on verge of greatness
It's so early, there will be an effort made here to keep things in perspective ... but have you seen the play of USC linebacker Rey Maualuga? If you watched the Trojans play, could your eyes possibly avoid him?

Really, it must be understood the sophomore has started only two games ... but does this look like Superman in cardinal and gold or what? He flies to the ball and then hits like a locomotive.

Honestly, the hyperbole must be kept to a minimum ... but isn't this obviously USC's next superstar?

Ah, yes, a deep breath. It's so easy to get carried away, to jump games and years ahead.

But if that feels irresponsible, the play of Maualuga argues against logic and patience and the value of experience.

In USC's opening three games, Maualuga has given every indication of becoming the ideal middle linebacker.

He has the natural size (6-3, 250). He has incredible burst. He is powerful and aggressive and uncommonly fast. More than all that, he is also amazingly athletic.

He can be a sledgehammer or a ballerina. Dazzle with power or agility. Play with fury and control.

"Maualuga has my vote for All-American right now," said Washington

State coach Bill Doba. "He is a super linebacker."

Also, he's 19.

If reason demands every one count to 10, watching him demands the superlatives flow.

USC is enjoying a phenomenal run of outstanding linebackers - Keith Rivers, Brian Cushing, Dallas Sartz, Oscar Lua. So many great linebackers, USC has taken to playing four at once.

Yet in the middle of this remarkably talented linebacker corps, Maualuga stands out as a special talent. His play screams rising superstar.

"There's no question," said USC coach Pete Carroll. "He's so fast. He's so sudden. Rising? It's easy to say that because of where he's already at. And he's just getting going. He has so much upside."

Lua returned this season as USC's starting linebacker. He was the Trojans' leading tackler last season. A senior, he was still pushed in camp by Maualuga. In the opener in Arkansas, Lua started and then left after one play with a hamstring injury.

Maualuga played the rest of the game, and started the next two against Nebraska and Arizona. Lua, a team captain, played in reserve and may never start again.

It's just too hard to keep Maualuga off the field. He is a defensive playmaker. Remember those old TV close-ups of Chicago Bears linebacker Mike Singletary and how his eyes seemed to just sparkle in anticipation of the next play?

They'd better get the camera on Maualuga. He plays the same way.

"We've always known about Rey and these past couple of games we've just seen some extraordinary things from him," said USC center Ryan Kalil. "He's excited about it, we're excited about it and we let him know. I think that all kind of feeds off each other and it just kind of keeps pushing him and challenging him to do great things."

Greatness is the destination, both in desire and ability. Maualuga said he has watched little of the NFL, but he knows exactly what he wants.

"I hope this is the beginning of something great for my career here at USC," Maualuga said. "When I get all the mistakes out of the way, hopefully I can become a dominating linebacker.

"I want to become the player the offense game-plans around, that the offense fears coming into the game."

Maualuga does not say this in a boastful way. He is soft-spoken, almost shy.

His father, Talatonu, passed away after a long battle with cancer in January. Now in his eye black under his right eye, Rey writes, "RIP" and in the left he writes, "Dad."

It has made for an emotional year for the young linebacker, but his on-field his focus is keen and the results, however early, unmistakable.

He seems in the USC linebacker tradition of Chris Claiborne and Junior Seau. On a team where defense has taken the early lead, this great talent is leading by his startling play.

"We have very, very high standards for Rey and what he can contribute," Carroll said. "And he's just getting going. He's just a pup. He's just learning what's going on out there."

He already appears special, but it is only the beginning.

Steve Dilbeck's column appears in the Daily News four times a week.

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