In the weeks leading up to the 2008 NFL Draft (April 26-27), BR.com will offer a look into the top prospects by position. This week, linebackers take the spotlight, with USC's Keith Rivers leading the way.
To many, 55 may seem like a simple number, but to a USC fan or football player, it carries a special significance.
As the story goes, the Trojans took up the habit of assigning the jersey to a certain defensive player that head coach Pete Carroll deemed worthy. Linebackers such as Willie McGinest, Junior Seau and Chris Claiborne have all donned the twin 5's, and all were top-10 picks in the NFL Draft.
For linebacker Keith Rivers, who will relinquish No. 55 after four years at USC, upholding the legacy adorning his jersey is just as important as his place in the draft.
"That's a big tradition," he affirmed. "Great linebackers have worn it and made it proud. I was honored to have it and tried to do my best to live up to it."
Hailing from Lake Mary, Fla., Rivers didn't have much of a background on the storied history of USC football, let alone the number he would grow into.
"Coming from Florida you don't get to watch the games and you don't know that much about it," he admitted. "After a while you develop a sense of how important it is and how important it is to practice hard every day and work hard in the weight room because the number means so much. It's bigger than you."
The 6-foot, 241-pound prospect certainly held up his end of the bargain. He stepped into the starting role as a sophomore in 2005, but really became the anchor typifying those crimson and gold digits the following season.
In what would prove to be his most prolific individual campaign, Rivers earned All-Pac 10 first-team honors for posting a career-high 85 tackles and two sacks.
During his final year, Rivers overcame a nagging left ankle injury to captain a defense that finished fourth in the nation in run defense, giving up only 84.2 yards per game, and second in scoring defense (16.0 points per game) and total defense (273.2-yard average).
"[Being chosen a captain] is something your peers select you to be," he said. "They're expecting a certain amount of responsibility out of you to lead them. I think it's a lot of pressure being a captain, and I enjoy it."
Stellar junior and senior campaigns - where he played three linebacker positions, and even defensive end and safety at times - coupled with a solid showing at the Senior Bowl, had scouts and coaches anxious to see more of what Rivers could do on the field. But, he tweaked his right ankle days before the Combine, leaving USC's Pro Day as his final chance to impress.
With a capacity crowd on hand for the April 2 workouts of such blue chippers as defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, tight end Fred Davis and quarterback John David Booty, Rivers stood out yet again.
Just as Rivers left enough of an impression on Carroll to earn his revered jersey, the linebacker was indelible. He ran a sub 4.6-second 40 and topped all linebackers at the Combine with a 42 1/2-inch vertical leap.
For a player already at or near the top of the class of 2008, such a performance would have to solidify his status as another top-10 selection.
For Rivers, it is another way to carry the torch of USC's No. 55.
"It's kind of a club of guys," he explained. "When I got it, they sent it out to all the other 55s and let them know a new person was going to be wearing it, because it hadn't been worn in a few years."
At some point, Rivers will be getting one of those calls. He just hopes it isn't soon.