Rey Maualuga is anxious to show the other 31 teams what they are missing by passing him over in the NFL draft. (Getty Images)
Posted: 9:15 a.m.
Rey Maualuga takes pride in his ability to snap-crackle-and-pop with passion on the field and then turns the switch off the field with a click of soft-spoken words.
But Maualuga couldn't hide the fire a few days ago. It had been two days since he sat and waited for an entire round before being taken in the NFL draft. Yes, he said, no question about it. A chip has formed on his very broad shoulders.
After Bengaldom rejoiced with incredulity that the defensive playmaker their team has sought since the decline and fall of Odell Thurman fell out of the sky at No. 38, Maualuga captured the moment as if it were some poor slob wandering out of a Pac 10 backfield.
"I definitely made it a point to my family and friends who were there with me during the draft," he said earlier this week. "I'm just going to prove to everybody I was a first-rounder and that I'm capable calling the play and being trusted to get the job done."
If Maualuga went the politically-correct route, one guy who doesn't have to - a former AFC general manger who has scouted and drafted more than his share of Pro Bowl linebackers - wondered about the lack of common sense that teams can sometimes possess.
"Maualuga is going to come in and start and be a person that defense rallies around," he says. "This is the guy the Bengals have needed. With the other guys he played with at USC, you know he's not going to be a wallflower. He's not going to come in and wait his turn.
"He didn't work out great, but that's B.S. That's so overrated. These guys get so hung up on the numbers. The freaking guy loves the game and plays it with a lot of passion. I hate it when people just ignore what's on the tape."
Two guys who didn't are Maualuga's position coach then (USC's Ken Norton) and now (the Bengals' Jeff FitzGerald).
Norton: "As good as he is now, his best football is in front of him. And he's really good now. But he's going to get better. He's a guy that when he hits you, he makes noises."
FitzGerald: "Rey has proven it over and over again that he's got that strong punch and ability to light people up. I think we've got other guys capable of doing that, they just haven't popped the cork yet. With Rey, it's probably more of an occurrence, but I think he can spark others in the passion of laying out somebody with a great hit."
That's why Bengaldom is overjoyed. They finally have that defender with Ravens resilience and Steelers swagger that gives a defense not only a playmaker but a heart and soul.
ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., says Maualuga brings "a Troy Polamalu-like element on the field" as an impact hitter. And everyone knows he's the new linebacker in the AFC North named Ray or Rey. Plus, FitzGerald and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis coached Ray Lewis in Baltimore.
But it takes Maualuga himself to talk some common sense.
"I think I bring a presence, a mindset," he said. "But I don't think only one person can lead a defense. One person helps, but you probably need two or three. I'm grateful to have the opportunity to let me grow, and I know there are guys around like Domata Peko and Dhani (Jones) and Keith (Rivers) that I've already met."
FitzGerald admits there is one of many reasons why he can't wait to see Maualuga, wearing No. 58, on the field when rookie camp begins Friday at 10 a.m.
"I'm eager for them to get on the field so I can learn for myself and find the similarities in that comparison," FitzGerald said of the Lewis question. "How they play, there are some things there than can be comparable down the road. But right now, you're talking about a guy that's coming out of college compared to the most decorated linebacker in the NFL. You talk about Ray Lewis and you're talking about a special status."
For one thing, Lewis and Maualuga may not start out playing the same position. With their most experienced backer, Jones, already in the middle, the Bengals are noodling on which position to start Maualuga. The leading possibility is SAM linebacker as a way to get their three best backers on the field with Maualuga's USC teammate, Keith Rivers, playing the WILL.
"We know what he can do as a middle linebacker," FitzGerald said. "I think we're doing Rey Maualuga and the Cincinnati Bengals justice by finding out exactly what he's capable of doing. There's always a constant cross-training going on with the three positions. We want to build our defense with the ability to change people out. It lends us more flexibility within the defensive structure, and that's a big part of what we did in Baltimore. If I know the position you play and you know the position I play, you understand the defense better."
Norton doesn't doubt Maualuga can do it even though he only played the middle for him at USC.
"Rey is the kind of guy that you just line him up and let him do what he does best," Norton said. "Go after the ball. Run all day and hit people."
For his part, Maualuga is saying all the politically-correct things that a rookie has to say: "I don't care what I play. Whatever position gets me on the field soonest."
What he will say is that he's got confidence in running a defense and calling signals. One of the weekend whispers for his fall was that he didn't call the signals for the Trojans.
"He handled that for us and he did a good job with that," Norton said. "I don't think that's going to be a problem."
FitzGerald has spent the last four months "probing" that very question with Norton and head coach Pete Carroll.
"My understanding is he made all the calls on defense and that question was probed," FitzGerald said. "Pete basically said, 'Hey, he's done the things we wanted him to do. He's called the huddle. He's been responsible for making calls and checks and we haven't had any trouble with it.' He seemed very pleased with the things Rey was able to do from a mental standpoint.
"There are always different levels of responsibility and I do know here our Mike linebacker is taxed tremendously with a lot of different calls and adjustments. Dhani Jones made the calls last year and he's very savvy but, of course, he's been around for 10 years."
Wherever he plays, Maualuga figures to be here from the get-go when the camps for veterans and rookies start May 19 since USC's classes end in about two weeks. FitzGerald has already seen some of the field work. He had the honor of running the linebackers drills at the USC Pro Day, which is a little bit like being an All-Star Game manager.
With Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews, he was blowing the whistle on a Sports Illustrated cover that boasted three picks in the top 38. But then, FitzGerald is used to such talent. A few years ago in Baltimore all his starters made the Pro Bowl. So you figure he knows a good backer when he sees one. Asked to break down Maualuga's Pro Day, and a chuckle escaped:
"Really good," he said.
"I feel like he dropped (in the draft) because he didn't have the first-round measurables," FitzGerald said. "The cones, the 40, the vertical, all that. But he knows how to play the game and how fast he plays it on the field doesn't correspond. It was really cool. When we started doing the position drills, you could see the look on his face at how comfortable he was and how natural it was for him. It was like he was saying, 'Finally the coaches and scouts get to see me do football and this is my deal.'
"He was most impressive in the movement skills and body position. Playing in the box, from tackle to tackle, and then going into the open field opening his hips, driving on balls and catching balls, I thought he was very good."
There have been some vague whispers about Maualuga's lack of discipline, but how do you stop a guy that plays 150 miles per hour?
"I play pretty much one way," he said. "As hard and as fast as I can. I know sometimes that can hurt you, but if that happens, I look forward to getting coached and getting it fixed."
But after years of being labeled as a defense with no playmakers or hitters or identity, the Bengals are happy to have the problem.
"He'll have to harness it. We want to get it under control because some of the things you can do in college you can't get away with in the NFL," FitzGerald said. "But we don't want to lose it, either."
Norton doesn't see it so much as a lack of discipline, but it's what Maualuga does: "Relentless. Making plays. The ability to change games."
Norton isn't going to begin to guess why Maualuga dropped. But here's a guy who also went in the second round, albeit 21 years ago, and played linebacker for 13 seasons.
"Both those guys, Keith and Rey, have the talent and the work ethic to play in the NFL for a long time," Norton said. "Rey's very passionate and he's humble. He's a good person. I think that's important. If you're a good person, I think that's part of being a good player."
It sounds like Maualuga and Norton are closer than your basic player-coach deal. When Maualuga's father died of cancer at just 45 years of age before the 2006 season, Maualuga said he immediately gravitated toward Norton.
"Go to Coach Norton," he said when asked if he had one mentor he's always relied on. "He knows everything."
Norton: "I don't think there's any question when you go through something like that, yeah, you're going to lose some focus. But he's matured a lot. He's got a big family. They're close. They've helped each other."
Maualuga talks about his father like he still misses him because he does. Every day. "It's tough to lose your biggest fan who was always there. Now he's got the best seat in the house."
He'll watch his son arrive to some familiar faces and not just Rivers. Defensive end Frostee Rucker is a USC guy that texted him right after the draft and there was a mutual good feeling when Maualuga met Peko and his wife in Los Angeles during the offseason. He also met Jones out there and came away with, "He was a really nice guy. It will be great to play with him."
But make no mistake. Listen carefully. It's the sound of the switch being turned on.
"It a crazy process," he said. "I don't really understand it. I guess it comes down to the draft needs for every team. I guess I didn't fit. It's really out of my control. I'm just going to show up and prove Cincinnati made the right choice."
FitzGerald understands perfectly.
"I feel badly for him that he dropped," he says. "But I'm happy for us."