GEORGETOWN, KY. — Manny Lawson, just arrived from San Francisco where he played for the greatest middle linebacker of all-time in Mike Singletary and with two of the NFL's best inside guys in Takeo Spikes and Patrick Willis, has no doubts about Rey Maualuga as he settles in next to him at SAM linebacker.
"He's young. For somebody so young, he's experienced," Lawson said after Monday night's practice. "He has a motor, he's aggressive, he's everything you want in a linebacker. Now he's playing the middle so he's coming downhill. I'm happy he's on my team. I'm happy I don't play offense. Whoever does play offense has to keep their eyes open. … I'll guarantee you we'll be hearing about Rey soon and far into the season."
Maualuga is just 24 and starting his third season, his first in his natural habitat of middle linebacker. But to him, it seems like the hour is late.
"Certain people get a certain number of chances," he said this week. "For me it's a now or never type of deal. This year, especially moving to a different position. I don't want people talking about my college reputation. 'You did this, you did that. He hasn't done a thing.' Give me an opportunity to play my original spot and then judge me from that. When all this is said and done."
After two seasons of playing on the outside at SAM for the first time in his life, he's back in the middle where he's always been. Ever since playing for the Jackrabbits in Samoa when he was old enough to only know he just wanted to carry around shoulder pads and helmets so he could look in the mirror and broke his hand because he didn't know what he was doing. Ever since he played at USC and was named the nation's best defensive player.
The initial reviews have been solid. His ever-demanding defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer, says Maualuga is getting the calls and communicating. Once in a while he still has that nasty habit of being over-aggressive, but Zimmer says he's been OK.
"That's where he belongs; in the middle," said Thomas Howard, the other veteran who has arrived from Oakland to play next to Maualuga at WILL. "He has that presence of a natural leader. He has a nice huddle presence. He's very comfortable there. He gets the calls out nice and clear, he makes the checks loud. To be a Mike (middle linebacker) you have to be smart and tough and Rey is both of those. You're the quarterback of the defense."
Maualuga plied his trade for two seasons at SAM while Dhani Jones patrolled the middle with a quarterback's role and a coach's demeanor. Maualuga played hard and tough next to him but the big-play pop had been missing. Now that he's headed downhill, many think his career is on the upswing.
"When you know what to do, it makes you play a lot faster," Maualuga said. "I can go from Point A to Point B, left to right, as opposed to playing SAM and being back side and having to come across all the way over the top and being sealed off by the tackle.
"Last year I was trying to learn the SAM but at the same time they threw me at Mike, too, and I wouldn't say it was complicated, but sometimes I would zone out. When I was at SAM, I was thinking of the Mike's responsibilities and not playing my responsibility. But now I get to concentrate on one spot and zone in to become good at it."
But easing him in last year seems to have paid off this camp. The transition looks to be sane. Maualuga believes since he knows SAM so well it has allowed him to play faster in the middle. And the huddle hasn't collapsed without the professorial Jones.
"Sometimes guys don't need to know everything," Zimmer said. "Some guys are different. All he needs to know is his job and these other guys need to know their jobs."
Maualuga, always passionate, always fiery, knows how deep the commitment must run. In his Georgetown College dorm room, he spends a lot of his time at night going over the playbook with an undrafted rookie linebacker in DeQuin Evans, a friend from California. He spends film sessions with Lawson and Howard and their 119 combined NFL starts. He has become attached to linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald.
Maualuga also says his new responsibility on the field dictates a different approach off the field, where he once faltered after his rookie year. On the club's night off this past Saturday night, Maualuga stayed on campus because he had treatment Sunday and hung around the dorms "telling funny stories" with Evans and rookie defensive tackle Lolomana Mikaele.
"There are 10 guys in that huddle that trust me and have faith in me knowing I can go home and come back the next day," Maualuga said. "They can't trust me being the Mike wondering what's going to happen at night and come back the next morning and, 'Damn, we don't have the Mike. We trusted this guy.' It's like a relationship. They trust you until you do something to lose their trust.
"I don't want questions. I don't want any doubts. In the players' minds or the coaches' minds. 'Can he handle it?' "
If you ask a guy like nickel backer Brandon Johnson who has watched Maualuga grow, he says he can and has.
"He has a natural feel for it. He's been doing well with communications," Johnson said. "He's done a good job of taking the huddle and guys have done a good job giving him that control and not talking. Let him get in, relax, do his thing and I think he'll be fine. It's tough to replace (Jones's) veteran leadership. He's been in the league for 1,000 years, but for Rey, he's a natural. I think it will be like riding a bike for him."
For Maualuga, it's a matter of braking on the downhill just long enough to execute. Don't spit out the play, don't over-pursue. "Sometimes I get too anxious," he says. "I don't look at the entire formation. The guys have been good. If I make a mistake calling the wrong strength or something, they tell me to take it easy and get it the next time."
A young man in a hurry, but you can't hurry seasoning. Just ask Lawson, who should know what the No. 1 trait has to be for a middle backer.
"Right now he's a little soft-spoken in the huddle," Lawson said. "But once we get farther along, he'll be loud. I think the first thing a Mike has to do is get the defense to follow you and we follow him."
And Howard has seen enough of the physical stuff even though he's been here only a week.
"He catches the ball well; he moves well," Howard said. "He's definitely physical, he's definitely downhill. He takes on fullbacks and offensive linemen. He loves doing that."
There was a play at the end of Monday night's practice that may sum up the delicate line of harnessing Maualuga's ample physical skills and meshing the downhill mentality with the moment. Johnson was underneath covering running back Brian Leonard when Johnson got a hand on an Andy Dalton pass and after Maualuga made a nice catch off the which-way-did-it-go deflection, he tucked it and started to dart the other way.
"It was good to see him run with the ball. We've all seen him do that," said Johnson. "I just wish he picked a direction so I could have blocked for him."
That may be the best advice he gets all year.
"I'm not," said Maualuga, who just wants to take off, "going to second guess myself."