Pac-10 Position Breakdown: Linebacker – USC Trojans
It’s the end of an era for the Men of Troy. USC must replace some of the greatest linebackers in the history of the program, and that is saying a lot when you consider the LB alumni for the Trojans (McGinest, Seau, Del Rio, Tatupu, and Rivers to name a few).
The superstar trio of Rey Maualuga (38th overall pick of NFL Draft, Bengals), Brian Cushing (15th overall pick of NFL Draft, Texans), and Kaluka Maiava (4th round pick, Browns) will now carry on the rich tradition of SC linebackers in the NFL. If you remove technicalities, the Trojans actually lost four superstars at the position, as DE/LB super-hybrid Clay Matthews will now become a full-time LB in the NFL (26th overall pick, Packers).
For most programs, losing that kind of talent would be devastating. For the Trojans, it’s business as usual. No program in America can reload faster, and this year should be no different. While it won’t be easy to replace legends, head coach Pete Carroll and LB coach Ken Norton Jr. have assembled a promising collection of blue-chippers who are ready to start a new era of their own.
The new man in the middle will be heralded sophomore Chris Galippo. Galippo has the daunting task of replacing Maualuga at inside linebacker, but those close to the program have high expectations for him. Last season, he played in 10 games as a reserve, totaling 12 tackles, two tackles for loss, and an interception.
At 6-2 238 pounds, Galippo is an exceptionally gifted player even by SC standards. He possesses outstanding strength and athletic ability, as well as rare vision. He’s also relentless in his pursuit of the football, and plays with tremendous physical aggression.
Those characteristics helped make him one of the highest-ranked prospects in the 2007 recruiting class. Rivals.com and Scout.com gave him 5-star recognition and rated him as the #1 linebacker in the ’07 class. He competed in the prestigious Army-All-American Game, where he won Defensive MVP Honors for his efforts against some of the best prep players in the country.
The Servite High School (CA) product arrived at SC in 2007 with high aspirations, but after playing in the first three games Galippo suffered a herniated disk that required season-ending back surgery. He received a medical redshirt as a result, but after the pain re-surfaced prior to the 2008 season he had another operation on his back. Most recently, the unlucky Galippo was diagnosed with mononucleosis just before spring practice (2009) began.
Now, he is injury-free and more motivated than ever. Galippo has started fall camp like a man on a mission, slimming down from 255 pounds to 238, which has enabled him to be faster and more agile. He is the clear number one MLB on the depth chart, a potential team leader, and the new defensive-signal caller for the defense. If health permits, Galippo could become the next household name at the position for USC.
Lining up next to Galippo on the weakside will be junior Malcolm Smith. Last season, Smith served as a backup to Maiava, and he appeared in all 13 games totaling 18 tackles while also spending time on special teams. His bloodlines suggest that he will do quite well with the Trojans, as his brother is former All-American wideout Steve Smith.
Pete Carroll believes Smith’s ability is reminiscent of Lofa Tatupu (another All-American), but insists that Smith is even more athletic. He may be the best overall athlete on the defense other than safety Taylor Mays, and he has been timed in the mid 4.3 range during team workouts.
At 6-2 225 pounds, Smith could become a nightmare for opposing offenses, possessing an unusual combination of strength and speed that is perfect for blitz schemes. He is also versatile enough to play the pass in coverage, as he can move like a defensive back. The Northridge (CA) native was given 4-star recognition by Rivals.com and Scout.com while he was a prep star at Taft High School (CA).
Smith’s dynamic playmaking ability could make him the breakout player of the SC defense in 2009.
The new starter on the strongside will be junior Michael Morgan. Morgan has been a reliable reserve for the last two seasons, and finished 2008 with 22 tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack, and one forced fumble.
At 6-4 220 pounds, he has prototypical size, strength, and speed for a strongside linebacker (4.4). Morgan has the ability to cover big receivers, while also possessing good run-stopping skills. The former Parade-All-American from Dallas (TX) was given 4-stars by Rivals.com after a stellar prep career at Skyline High School (TX).
Morgan will now attempt to offset the loss of Brian Cushing on the strongside, and is a clear number one for the spot on the current depth chart.
The reserves took a huge hit when promising freshman Frankie Telfort (competing for weakside spot) was ruled out this year because of a rare heart condition. The university has stated that it will still honor his scholarship.
The biggest question mark in the unit was whether senior Luther Brown would qualify this season. At Pac-10 Media Day, Pete Carroll essentially ruled him out, but after recently getting the necessary work done, Brown looks like he may be available this season (although nothing is certain yet).
The 6-2 235 pound Brown has been through a lot in his career, and did not play at all in 2008 because of a nagging back injury. He may now have one more chance to live up to the extremely high expectations that were set for him when he arrived at SC in 2005. The Lakewood (CA) native looked very good in the spring and could end up as the main backup to Morgan if the NCAA clears him.
One of the key backups for Galippo at MLB will be sophomore Uona Kaveinga. Last season, he saw limited action in eight games and finished with three tackles (one for loss).
At 6-0 245 pounds, some Trojan insiders believe Kaveinga is the closest thing on the roster to Maualuga, possessing a similar dose of imposing physicality. He may be the best pure hitter on the team, and he always seems to move downhill.
Kaveinga is also deceptively quick for a player of his size, and his skill set seems perfect for blitz packages. Rivals and Scout.com gave him 4-star recognition, and he was named a PrepStar All-American. The Hawthorne (CA) native must improve in pass coverage and become more of a sure-tackler, but he has a bright future at SC.
Two more potential key reserves for 2009 are sophomore Jordan Campbell, and true freshman Jarvis Jones.
The 5-11 230 pound Campbell played in 12 games as a reserve and special teams player, finishing with seven tackles. The former fullback from Corona (CA) has a great chance to see time behind Malcolm Smith on the weakside. He is compactly built and accelerates to the ball with great straight-line speed. Campbell is very physical at the point of attack, and should be a nice compliment to the speedier Smith. He received 4-star recognition from both Rivals and Scout.com, and was also a PrepStar All-American.
The 6-3 225 pound Jones is starting his first year with the Trojans, and he will be competing for time in the middle, behind Galippo. Jones has tremendous size and plays with an explosive skill set. He has as much upside as any LB on the roster, and could become a force for the Trojans over the next few years. Rivals and Scout.com rated him as a 4-star prospect, and he is yet another PrepStar All-American. The Columbus (GA) native will need to gain a deeper understanding of the defensive system, but he has exciting ability.
Other players competing for time are: freshmen Marquis Simmons and Kevin Greene, sophomore Shane Horton (may play at safety too), and senior Nick Garratt.
A pessimist would make the following case for why SC fans should be worried about the linebackers in 2009: Galippo is injury-prone, Luther Brown still may not qualify, the loss of Telfort was not only unfortunate but also hurts the depth on the weakside, and everyone is generally inexperienced due to the rock stars that have dominated playing time in the corps over the last few years.
There are two reasons why I’m not worried about this group in 2009: Pete Carroll and Ken Norton Jr. You will not find two better teachers in the game, and they know how to get the most out of a player.
I expect Galippo to become a real leader this season, while also playing at a high level in the middle (of course, he does need to stay healthy). But to me the real star is Malcolm Smith. Taylor Mays says he will be the next great SC linebacker, and I agree.
On pure speed alone he would be good, but it’s his development in all facets of the position that is exciting. Morgan should be steady on the strongside, and I can’t help but picture him going one on one with a guy like Rob Gronkowski (although Gronk probably wins that battle as of now, it would sure be fun to watch).
If Brown does qualify, and the younger players emerge, depth will not be a concern like some have suggested.
Overall, don’t expect much of a dropoff at the second level for USC, as this linebacking corps should more than hold it’s own in 2009.