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August 4, 2009

Pre-camp Preview: Linebackers

For the final position preview, we'll look at the one position that might have USC fans and coaches more worried than all of the others.

The Trojans have the difficult task of replacing an ultra-talented group of linebackers that in many ways defined the USC defense over the past four years.

With a brand new starting unit, it'd be tough to expect the new guys to play at the same high level Trojan fans are used to.

But after seeing those guys out there during the offseason, there are plenty of reasons to be cautiously optimistic.

What was

The 2008 defense got great production from its starting linebackers, getting huge numbers from Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Kaluka Maiava.

The season began with Maualuga posing for pictures at an offseason workout in a pink thong. While Maualuga showed his soft side in the photo, there was nothing soft about his performance during the year. Highlighted by an interception return for a touchdown against Ohio State, Maualuga went on to win the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the top defensive player in college football.

Despite missing one game with an injury, Maualuga led USC with 79 tackles.

Flanking him on one side, linebacker Cushing was sort of the yin to Maualuga's yang. Voted a team captain, Cushing played in each of USC's 13 games and had 73 tackles including 10.5 for losses.

Maiava, the Rose Bowl Defensive MVP, had 66 tackles on the season and was one of USC's most consistent defenders.

Clay Matthews began the year as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker before permanently playing with his hand on the ground.

Michael Morgan made one start on the outside against Oregon and played well. Chris Galippo, Jordan Campbell and Malcolm Smith both saw the field on a regular basis, and Uona Kaveinga and Nick Garratt both helped out in reserve duty.

What is

Without Maiava, Maualuga, Cushing or Matthews around this offseason, the competition for oodles of playing time was on, and the frontrunners did their job by holding ground.

Smith showed why he's such a promising player at weakside linebacker by making a number of plays in spring camp - forcing turnovers and swarming to the ball.

Smith said he thought about the opportunity ahead of him on a daily basis this offseason.

"It's humongous. I think about it probably every 10 seconds. All day when I'm working out, it's all I think about," Smith said. "I want to make sure I look like a leader and make sure everything I do sets an example for everyone else."

While Smith took control of the job on the weak side, Morgan looks like a future star on the strong side. With great speed and unique long, slender frame, Morgan's ready for his chance.

"My first job is to do everything right. I want to go out there and compete every play, know my assignments and play to the best of my ability," Morgan said. "It was tough to sit, but I never really thought about leaving. Now, we're going to have to find out what I can do."

Replacing Maualuga won't be easy, but Galippo might even be a smarter football player than his predecessor. He's adept at making plays, and he's a natural leader - something that emerged during spring camp.

"That's the good thing about spring football. It gives everyone a chance to look and see the rest of the team wearing pads. The seniors leave, and its just a bunch of young guys," Galippo said. "That's this team and that's the linebackers. We don't have a lot of experience and we're all still underclassmen. We need to find ourselves now and push each other.

"The team needs to see the guys who are willing to step out and lead this team."

While the guys at the top of the depth chart give USC more speed than last season, there are concerns with depth.

Those concerns worsened when news that Frankie Telfort could no longer play football because of a serious heart condition surfaced in the weeks leading up to fall camp.

Without Telfort, a freshman expected to compete, USC will lean heavily on Campbell. Campbell said he needed to regain the attitude he played with before coming USC and sitting the bench.

"Sitting was tougher than I expected. It messes with your confidence," he said. "In high school, you're the man. Then, you sit for two years. The biggest thing is not losing you're talent or anything like that.

"You have to make sure that you play with the same swagger and confidence that you had. You have to act like you expect to make every single play."

Kavienga filled in as Maualuga's back up early last season while Galippo returned from injury, and he decided to forego his Mormon mission in order to come back to USC.

"There was a lot of encouragement to go on my mission, especially from my parents. They counseled me a lot, and they gave me a lot of good advice," Kaveinga said. "They encouraged me to go, but they said it was my decision. They just wanted me to be the best in whatever I choose. After a lot of prayers and pondering, I made the decision.

"The coaches didn't push me either way. It was all my decision, and I feel like I made the right one. I'm glad to be here."

Luthur Brown and Garratt both are valuable because they can play multiple linebacker positions, but USC head coach Pete Carroll said he didn't think Brown would be available because of academics.

Even without Telfort, the Trojans have a talented group of newcomers in Marquis Simmons, Jarvis Jones and Kevin Greene.

What will be

A lot of USC's success at the position could hinge on the development of Kavienga, Campbell and the freshman linebackers. USC isn't all that deep at the position, and chronic injuries over the course of Galippo's career are enough to make anyone nervous.

Still, there's a lot of talent at the top here.

Morgan has all-conference potential right away, and Smith showed he could be dominant this spring.

Losing Telfort really hurts, and that could force USC into moving a player from another position.

While the numbers aren't necessarily there, the talent is, leaving one player confident that Maualuga, Maiava and Cushing can be replaced.

"If we put the work in, it's definitely realistic. We've been doing the same work as those guys for a long time," Smith said. "I don't want to put too much on us, but I think we can help the team the same way.

"We want to prove to them as much as we want to prove to everyone else how good we are. We want to show no drop off."



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