Trio of Trojans Head LB Prospects


**Vic Fangio** didn't have to tilt his neck much to witness three of the best linebackers in this year's draft.

The Ravens linebackers coach attended USC's Pro Day workouts, and nobody was fooled into thinking prospects Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews won't all be first-round picks.

They will make history in doing so.

Having a trio of linebackers from the same school land in the first round has never happened in the NFL's modern era.

In fact, it is so rare a feat, only five previous times has a pair of linebackers from the same school been first-round selections - six if you count Florida State's Ernie Sims and Kamerion Wimbley, who was a college defensive end, but switched to outside linebacker for the Browns in 2006.

"It's incredible," said Ravens Director of Player Personnel **Eric DeCosta**. "These guys are unusual in that they're all big, physical players that run very well. They're all very smart and had so much success. Their coaches speak very highly of them. They're all a little bit different, but they all project very well to the NFL.

Could one of them become a Raven Saturday night?

There is definitely a need for linebackers in Baltimore.

Inside linebacker is probably the most pressing. With the departure of Bart Scott, the Ravens are counting on Tavares Gooden to fill the void in his second year. Behind him and Ray Lewis, there is Brendon Ayanbadejo, and perhaps Prescott Burgess could play in the middle, but adding another thumper would be a wise move.

Some mock drafts have linked Baltimore with Maualuga, who is regarded as the draft's biggest thumper.

Known for his pad-popping hits that have made him a YouTube star, Maualuga was a unanimous first-team All-American and All-Pac 10 player last year, receiving the Bednarik Award for the nation's best linebacker.

"He's probably more of an interior player between the tackles," noted DeCosta. "Maualuga is very physical and productive with a nose for the ball. He's not as good in coverage as the other guys, but he's physically dominant with excellent size. There are positive intangibles that show he could be a solid 'Mike' 'backer."

The Ravens have been linked to Maualuga in several mock drafts if he falls to them at No. 26.

Judging by most accounts, Cushing won't last that long.

The 6-foot-3, 243-pounder could immediately help a team as an outside linebacker. Another All-American and All-Pac 10 performer, the chiseled Cushing is a combination of excellent size and athletic ability. Last season, he led the team with 10.5 tackles for loss in addition to 73 stops and 3 sacks.

Every team can use more pass rushers, and the Ravens are no different, especially with Trevor Pryce entering his 13th season and Terrell Suggs still without a long-term contract.

"Brian has some versatility, someone that can play 'Sam' or 'Mike' 'backer," DeCosta said. "He's a gifted athlete that stays on his feet, is very intelligent and has a great motor. I think he has both coverage and blitz ability. For a guy that can play a lot of positions and play them well, he can really succeed at the next level."

Of the three, Matthews' star rose only recently.

After walking on the team as an unheralded high school prospect, he spent three years toiling on special teams. Matthews, the son of longtime NFL linebacker Clay Matthews and nephew of Hall of Fame lineman Bruce Matthews, burst onto the scene in 2008, when he posted 56 tackles, blocked a kick and had 4.5 sacks to go with 9 stops for losses.

"He gained a lot of size and strength from when he first got to USC," said DeCosta. "He was an outstanding special teams player for them, too. I would say probably one of the best special teams players in college football.

"As a linebacker, he's the best pass rusher of the three guys, too. He has a good feel on the edge with his hand in the dirt. Matthews isn't as strong as the other three, but at this point, he can develop and continue to improve."

Even if all three Trojans are off the board by the time Baltimore is on the clock, there are other prospects to keep an eye on in the late-first and second rounds.

Inside, Jasper Brinkley of South Carolina and Darry Beckwith from LSU are both big-hitting field generals.

As for pass rushers, Penn State's Aaron Maybin, who hails from Maryland, might be the best speed rusher, but could slide because of his inexperience of only starting one season. Cincinnati Connor Barwin is a versatile player that has seen time at both tight end and defensive end. Larry English of Northern Illinois has 63 tackles for loss, which is fifth-best in NCAA history.

But as far as talent at the top goes, USC has every other school beat when it comes to linebackers.

"That's a football factory with a proud tradition of producing linebackers," said DeCosta.

And the Ravens are known for developing them. 

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