Bengals get steal in USC backer

Updated: 11:45 p.m.

The Bengals didn't get that center they coveted in the second round Saturday, but they ended up with a player that suddenly changes their demeanor on defense with highly-regarded and fiery USC middle linebacker Rey Maualauga, their MLB of the future.

After Maualuga fell to the Bengals like thunder from the sky to send a bolt through Paul Brown Stadium with an honest-to-goodness defensive difference-maker, the trio of coaches that met the media looked like they had swallowed the collective canary.

After getting shut out to coach Maualuga in the Senior Bowl, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis finally got his man, unbelievably, with the 38th pick.

"You can see by the smiles, we're very excited to have picked Rey. He obviously is a player that plays at a very, very high level," Lewis said.  "As you looked at the guys last year that were coming out of 'SC, you kept wondering who that No. 58 guy was. To be sitting here a year later with him on our football team is really exciting. "

Indeed, the Bengals thought so much of Maualuga that they had a nameplate ready for in case things broke differently way back in the first round at No. 6. Lewis admitted he had spent the week talking about him with defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald, the coaches that joined him at the news conference.

"I have a great vision for him," said Lewis, but he wouldn't reveal it.

He did say he wouldn't pencil Maualuga in as the starting middle linebacker, but he is clearly the heir apparent to 31-year-old Dhani Jones. Asked if he's going to start, Zimmer said, "Well, yeah," but he wouldn't say where, either. FitzGerald did say Maualuga can play all three spots.

"The defense at USC is a complicated defense , too," Zimmer said. "He's played against spread offenses, and offenses that run the ball. All those things bode well for him."

The coaches won't say where they'll line him up at next weekend's rookie camp and Maualuga said, "Wherever is the position I can get on the field quickest."

The Bengals coaches, who led the North squad, got an eyeful at the Senior Bowl when they and Maualuga were on opposite sides. Much to their chagrin.

"We had a chance to be around him for a week  and he didn't disappoint us even though he was on the other team," Lewis said.  "Part of us deciding to go coach the game was I figured we would have those (USC) guys on our team, but for the first time in the history of the senior bowl, 'SC played for the South for some reason."

The coaches feel like the 6-1, 252-pound Maualuga gives them ample versatility. He blitzed inside and rushed off the edge (he had six sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss) while maintaining his rep as a hard-hitter who knocks people out of the game.

"He is an excellent blitzer. He plays well with everything they have asked him to do," Lewis said. "He has played in space and in the coverage downs, and he can run with the skilled positions. We are gaining a guy who has played in different spots on the football field."

Why Maualuga fell is anyone's guess. He has a knock for not being disciplined at times on the field, but not enough to knock him into the second round. Maualuga probably explained it best.

"I think it's just the position of middle linebacker. Everyone is looking for this hybrid outside linebacker-defensive end type of defensive player," he said. "I really don't know. I'm just excited to be drafted and to be playing for Marvin Lewis and that staff. I'm anxious to get things going."

Why were the Bengals so happy? They got a guy they would have taken in the middle of the first round if they traded back and they got an All-American that can play all three linebacker spots in their defense. It's believed they were also debating Oregon center Max Unger, but Maualauga's grades were so high that it overrode the Bengals need at center.

"I sat down with him at the Senior Bowl. He's very humble. He's very hungry," Zimmer said.

"The man's a warrior," FitzGerald said.

FitzGerald said he could see a scenario where Jones and Maualauga are on the field at the same time.  Maualauga is also reunited with WILL backer Keith Rivers, his former 'SC teammate and the Bengals first-round pick last year.

"It will be a great feeling," Maualauga said of the reunion after seeing that Rivers had already called into his phone.

But he did speak with Bengals tackle Domata Peko because he answered when he saw an unfamiliar number. Bengals defensive end Frostee Rucker, another former USC player, also checked in. Maualuga also shares the same hometown as Bengals receiver Maurice Purify (Eureka, Calif).

"It's good to be with people I know," he said. 

Maualauga did speak with Rivers briefly after his first NFL season.

"All he said is that Coach (Pete) Carroll prepared us really well for the opportunity to play at the next level," Maualauga said. "He said that the only thing that changes is the mindset of things, and the mental part of football. He said that everything is fast and it is quicker than it is in college. Then again, to transition from USC to the pros isn't that much different."

Maualauga already arrives on the cover of Sports Illustrated, where he was this week with fellow USC linebackers Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews. He admitted he was getting "a little upset" as he fell long after they were picked in the first round, but he also said, "God works in mysterious ways. I'm just happy to be taken and ready to go in there and play for the Bengals."

The coaches also love his take-no-prisoners in the black-and-blue AFC North. He says he's a combination of run-stopper, pass-rusher, but "just give me a helmet and pads, line me up and tell me what do."

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