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October 13, 2006
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He has been described by his coach as the ideal athlete to play linebacker. At least one rival coach has labeled him a budding All-American.
Yet Southern California's Rey Maualuga remains dissatisfied.
"I feel that I can do a lot more," the 6-foot-3, 250-pound sophomore said, "but for some reason I haven't the last two games."
As he attempts to live up to his extraordinary potential in his first year as a starter, this former five-star prospect has developed into his own toughest critic.
That's what happens when you see each game as a chance to honor your late father.
Maualuga's dad, Talatonu, was his greatest mentor and his biggest fan. He attended each of his son's games as Rey progressed from a Pop Warner novice to a high school All-American.
He even helped persuade his son to sign with Southern Cal.
"He was a pastor," Maualuga said. "When I was growing up, he would teach me the right ways, what to do and what not to do. He'd tell me basically to go out there and play for nobody but God."
The elder Maualuga underwent surgery shortly before the 2005 season opener and died of cancer in the week leading up to the Rose Bowl.
Before each game, Maualuga uses eye black to spell out the words "R.I.P." under one eye and "Dad" under the other.
"It's something to help me get stronger and stronger on the field as I'm playing," Maualuga said. "It's to let him know while he's up there, I'm down here trying to make him happy."
He's turning this season into quite a tribute.
Maualuga has collected a team-high 36 tackles to spearhead the third-ranked Trojans' drive toward their third national championship in the last four years.
In the Trojans' 20-3 victory over Arizona, Maualuga intercepted a tipped pass just before the ball hit the ground. When Arizona drove into USC territory midway through the second half, he recorded a sack and a tackle for loss on back-to-back plays to force the Wildcats to settle for a field goal.
"He's so fast, so sudden and he's just getting going," USC coach Pete Carroll said afterward. "He has so much upside. To see the physical side of his play and then to see the finesse play on the interception to keep that ball off the ground, that's a wide range of ability."
Washington State coach Bill Doba reportedly said last month that Maualuga had his All-America vote.
And that was before the sophomore sensation compiled nine tackles in the Trojans' 28-22 victory over the Cougars. Doba later compared Maualuga to Mark Fields, a former Washington State star who went on to play a decade in the NFL.
"He's a very active player," Doba said. "He plays the run well and just has great instincts. He's a superstar in the future."
Maualuga said that kind of endorsement only gives him more incentive.
"It feels awesome to come from a head coach, especially from the Washington State coach," Maualuga said. "To hear those words, (people) expect me to play at a certain level. When I make a mistake, people will say, 'No, he doesn't have my vote. He isn't ready.' ''
Maualuga believes he's made too many mistakes lately.
Maualuga can't afford those types of breakdowns because USC's defense has little margin for error. The losses of Heisman Trophy winners Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush to the NFL have made the Trojans' offense less explosive.
Although the Trojans remain undefeated, they have eked out six-point victories over Washington State and Washington the last two weeks. Last year, the Trojans won each of their regular-season games by an average margin of 28.7 points before falling to Texas in the Rose Bowl.
"We've all learned that this team is not last year's team," Maualuga said. "It's not always going to be a blowout. Defensively, we have to step up and take charge of the team. If our offense can't get it going, we've got to go out there and get a spark."
Maualuga has provided that type of spark ever since he started playing football.
Rivals.com rated him as the nation's top inside linebacker in the 2005 recruiting class. He helped produce an undefeated season his junior year at Eureka (Calif.) High, a school that wasn't known for producing Division I players.
"We're in a rural, remote area," said Jack Lakin, who coached Maualuga at Eureka. "Until Rey was here, the number of college recruiters who'd come in here the last 20 years probably wouldn't even fill up one hand."
Talatonu Maualuga was there every step of the way to make sure his son developed into a well-rounded person.
The Maualuga family moved to Eureka prior to Rey's sophomore season. Lakin still remembers a conversation he had with Talatonu Maualuga before Rey enrolled in school.
"He didn't want to know what type of football schedule we had or what type of football program we had," Lakin said. "He wanted to know what type of school we were and to make sure that Rey was doing all the things socially, academically and attendance-wise to graduate from high school and go on to be a quality young adult."
Maualuga continued to seek advice from his dad during the recruiting process.
Eureka actually was closer to Oregon ? another school Maualuga considered ? than Southern California. But after visiting the USC campus and talking with Carroll, Talatonu Maualuga knew where he wanted his son to go.
"Son, I want you to go here," Rey remembers his dad telling him. "It's better for your future."
Maualuga emphasized that his dad didn't force him to go anywhere and instead let him make his own decision. Maualuga appreciated the Trojans' history of great Polynesian players, from former Pro Bowl players Junior Seau and Troy Polamalu to 2005 USC standouts Fred Matua and Taitusi "Deuce" Lutui.
"People like Fred Matua and Deuce Lutui, they took me under their wing, took care of me and showed me love," Maualuga said. "Fred Matua said as the years go by and more Polynesian players come in, I have to take care of them like they took care of me."
Those guys helped Maualuga make a quick adjustment to the college game.
He collected 37 tackles in a reserve role as a true freshman last year. He gave USC fans a hint of things to come by compiling a team-high nine tackles and forcing two fumbles as the Trojans drubbed UCLA 66-19 in the regular-season finale.
Maualuga closes on ball carriers with such speed and delivers such punishing hits that he has wasted no time living up to the great expectations that accompanied his arrival.
"You can't ask for a guy to be more well-versed athletically than Rey is at his spot," Carroll said.
Maualuga studies tapes of his performances with the same intensity he brings to the field each Saturday. While everyone else marvels at his potential, Maualuga criticizes his production.
"As far as the way I'm playing, I still have a lot more to show," Maualuga said. "I have a lot more to prove."
Consider that a warning to the rest of the Pac-10.
For more coverage of the Southern Cal Trojans, check out USCFootball.com.