Unleashing his inner tiger
The questions still follow him. He’s dressing for practice in preparation for the Cincinnati Bengals’ final exhibition game against the Indianapolis Colts, and he’s nearly 2,000 miles from home, where the criticisms first began. But those unkind evaluations still trail behind.
Perhaps former USC All-American linebacker Rey Maualuga thought those queries had evaporated. Maybe he thought that since he had begun showing his potential with Cincinnati, the team that took him in the middle of the second round of the NFL draft, he wouldn’t have to ponder the negative analyses of anonymous scouts any more.
The inquiries about his intelligence, about his maturity, about his ability to transform his collegiate success into a solid pro career. Maualuga has found that, even though linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald proclaimed on a recent episode of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” that the staff absolutely had to get the Eureka, Calif., native in the starting lineup, the questions about his NFL talent have not faded away.
“People are going to talk,” Maualuga said, resting a hand, complete with a Jamaica-inspired “One Love” bracelet wrapped around his wrist, on a shelf inside his rookie-sized metal locker. “They’re going to say one thing about you and they’re going to say you can’t do this. Regardless of what I said, it wasn’t going to help me get drafted the place I wanted to get drafted. I was going to have to come here and let my play speak for itself.”
So far, his play has spoken like a man screaming into a microphone. Against St. Louis in the third exhibition game, he led the team with eight tackles, and although he started the season behind Rashad Jeanty on the depth chart at strong-side linebacker, FitzGerald said this week that Maualuga has made the race to start a neck-and-neck battle. On Sunday, Maualuga said he has been told he’ll be the starter in the season opener, though the Bengals have not announced it.
He has also impressed coaches with his ability to work as a middle linebacker, the position he played at USC, when the Bengals switch to a nickel package in passing situations.
“Quite honestly, at the outside linebacker position, we had some questions about his pass coverage and him playing out in space, just because we hadn’t seen him do it before,” FitzGerald said. “Up to this point, we’ve been pleased with what we’ve seen. You’re always concerned if you don’t actually see a guy doing that. He was playing inside linebacker exclusively, and we didn’t see him cover receivers outside of the box. That was a big question we had when he came into spring ball. He did a good job, and he’s carried that into training camp.”
While scouts wondered plenty about his on-field exploits (was he only a big-play wonder? Was he too inconsistent?), the biggest questions concerned his maturity.
Before last season’s Rose Bowl, Maualuga -- who won the Bednarik Award as the nation’s top defensive player -- was caught on video, dancing suggestively behind ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews. It didn’t reflect well on him, and he realized his mistake soon after the video drew millions of views on YouTube.
“I made an apology with the way I handled myself during that time,” Maualuga said. “I just felt like I was disrespectful toward women. I just didn’t want it to seem that we could do things and get away with it.”
The line he’s walked since has been to maintain his happy-go-lucky, chilled-out, good-for-the-team personality while shying away from becoming too obnoxious for a rookie linebacker trying to take a starting spot away from a veteran.
Instead, he was always the last rookie at training camp in Georgetown, Ky., to sign autographs -- once, he stayed so long, his legs cramped, and he had to be carted off the field while he continued to autograph footballs and fling them to fans -- and he’s playfully stolen walkie-talkies from unsuspecting team interns.
Harmless fun, yes. But still, the full light of his shining personality won’t be evident until Maualuga understands the finer points of his position.
“That is just a glimmer of the guy we’re going to see on the field,” FitzGerald said. “He’ll be a good guy with the community. He’ll be interactive with people. That will come. Right now, it’s about learning how to play the defense, learning how to use the techniques we use at linebacker, and getting out there and playing your [behind] off.”
The veterans around him at linebacker and several fellow former Trojans -- linebacker Keith Rivers, defensive end Frostee Rucker and quarterback Carson Palmer -- will help him harness his enthusiasm.
“He’s a high-spirited guy, and bringing that to the team is always a good thing,” said strong safety Chinedum Ndukwe. “He just needs to make sure he channels it in the right direction. He’s going to make the plays regardless. I’m sure Rey wants to be that big-time player, and having those veteran guys around him will really help him out.”
Maualuga was hindered early in camp by a hamstring injury that kept him out of practice for about a week and caused him to miss the first exhibition game. But since then, with his accelerated repetitions in practice, he’s performed well.
“He may make a slight error or whatever, but he’s going at full speed,” Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis said. “When he does it, he’s doing it at an impact. Rey comes here like most college players and he has to learn the discipline with his eyes. That’s true with every college linebacker you watch. But they had a very diverse defensive system, and there were a lot of things he learned to do on campus at USC. He had an advantage.”
While Maualuga has tried to answer most of the criticism with his preseason participation, he hasn’t forgotten about what happened in April. At first, he says he was bitter when he fell into the second round, but he’s also gotten over the snub. Yet, the way he plays confirms he’s still trying to answer the questions that haven’t quite evaporated.
“I don’t know if I have something to prove,” Maualuga said. “I just have to go out there and play straight football. Do what I’ve been taught and what I’ve been coached. I’m not going out of my way to show these other people what I can do. This is football. This is the game I’ve played for the last 12 years. Hopefully -- not hopefully -- but somewhere down the line, people are going to say, ‘He’s a football player. We made a mistake. This guy can play.’ I’m going to show that.”