YOU GET THEfeeling that every time coach Pete Carroll walks out his front door, he tripsover another high school All-America longing to be a Trojan. With an impressiverecruiting haul that added to a roster already overflowing with talent, it'slittle wonder that the Trojans are the popular pick to win the nationalchampionship. The only thing they appear to lack is enough playing time todistribute among their various stars and stars-in-the-making.
The crowd atrunning back, where USC has 10--seriously, 10--former high school stars, mightbe the best evidence of the Trojans' wealth of talent. But most of those backsare notable more for their promise than for their production at the collegelevel. Rather it's at linebacker, where Brian Cushing, Rey Maualuga and KeithRivers are arguably the best three-man unit in the country, that USC'soverabundance at every position is most apparent. "This is the biggest,fastest, most aggressive linebacking group we've had," says Carroll.
Maualuga andRivers were first-team All-Pac-10 selections last year, while Cushing was asecond-teamer. All three players are on various watch lists for national awardsthis season, and with Cushing returning to his natural strongside linebackerposition, they should form a perfectly complementary unit.
The fiercesthitter of the trio is the 6' 3", 250-pound Maualuga, a junior middlelinebacker whose skull-rattling tackle of UCLA quarterback Patrick Cowan alongthe sideline last December is still a YouTube favorite. "You can tell Rey'shits by the sound," former center Ryan Kalil, now with the CarolinaPanthers, said after that game. "You don't even have to see them. Heabsolutely crushes people." The 6' 4", 240-pound Cushing, also ajunior, is the most versatile of the group. He adapted so well to playing onthe line that he led the Trojans with 13 1/2 tackles-for-loss in 2006 and wasvoted defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl, with 2 1/2¬†sacks and a forced fumblein USC's 32-18 win over Michigan. Rivers, a 6' 3", 235-pound senior, is thespeediest of the three. Once, when asked for three words to describe hisstrengths, he replied, "Fast, physical and . . . fast." He led the teamwith 85 tackles and three forced fumbles last season.
Carroll wouldlike to see the Trojans create more turnovers this season. The defense forcedonly 22 last season, down from 38 in 2005, a decline that Carroll is determinedto reverse this fall. These stellar linebackers should help USC get back totaking the ball away, after which they may have to wrestle some postseasonawards from one another.
COACH: Pete Carroll
2006 RECORD: 11-2 (7-2 in Pac-10)
FINAL AP RANK: 4
RETURNING STARTERS: Offense 6, Defense 10
QB John David Booty (Sr.)
Will build on 391-yard, four-TD Rose Bowl
LT Sam Baker (Sr.)
Four-year starter and two-time All-America
DT Sedrick Ellis (Sr.)
In two years starting at nose: 16 tackles-for-loss
Sept. 1 IDAHO
15 at Nebraska
22 WASHINGTON STATE
29 at Washington
Oct. 6 STANFORD
20 at Notre Dame
27 at Oregon
Nov. 3 OREGON STATE
10 at California
22 at Arizona State
Dec. 1 UCLA
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"You can tell Rey's hits by the sound," saysKalil. "You don't even have to see them."
John Todd/Icon SMI (mascot)
Maualuga's tackle at UCLA is a YouTube smash.
Charles Baus/Icon SMI (opposite)
Carroll wants the Trojans' defense to create more turnovers, like this one thatCushing (10) forced in the Rose Bowl.