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November 2, 2008For most of the season, Rey Maualuga has been making big plays, but early in the year, something wasn't quite right.
There were hits on then-Virginia quarterback Peter Lalich and a game-changing interception return for a score against Ohio State that broke the game open, but Maualuga carried a burden with him that impacted his ability to play complete football.
Saturday in the Trojans' lopsided 56-0 win over Washington, Maualuga showed he's begun the process of unloading the expectations that pundits and experts saddled him with since he decided to return for his senior season.
"I was being a person that I was not. Everyone was talking," he said. "They wanted me to be this superb athlete, the one you have to watch out for. It was 'Rey's going to blah blah blah. He can do this and do that.'
"I was trying to be whoever everyone else thought I was. I knew I just had to slow down and play within the defense."
Instead, he flew around the field trying to make every possible play, often times leaving him out of position. But after coping with some disappointment, Maualuga said he's learned his lesson.
"I've been working on knowing what I need to do and knowing that there are 10 other guys out on the field with me," Maualuga said. "I just was learning how to play football within a system. That's what I've done the past couple games. I've played within the defense."
Saturday, the results were obvious quickly.
On Washington's first drive, Maualuga stepped up to stop Washington running back Terrance Dailey on consecutive carries, sending a message.
"He's stepped up when we've needed him," linebacker Brian Cushing said. "He's doing a really good job right now. He's playing smart, and he's playing his kind of game.
"He's just playing how he's capable of playing - not just physically but mentally."
Saturday, Maualuga made plays on special teams, recorded six tackles and made a diving interception on a tipped ball.
Maualuga said he's playing with more of a sense of urgency, taking each rep as a chance to earn a spot on the field for another play.
"You're never guaranteed a spot. You can be demoted any time. They never threatened that, but it's just something I learned," he said. "I'm happy with where I am right now because I'm progressively growing as a player and as a person. Every week, I'm getting better and better."
In his final season and specifically in recent weeks, Maualuga's new attitude has impressed some of his toughest critics.
"He's becoming complete in front of our eyes," USC linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. said. "It's all been part of a process. He can play the run. He can play the pass, and he's the leader on this defense. He's becoming that perfect linebacker.
"He can do it all."
The praise from Norton means a lot, as Maualuga and his position coach have a close bond built on a unique foundation.
"I fear Coach Norton," Maualuga said. "I fear him yelling at me telling me I missed tackles. I'm making myself proud, and I want to make him proud.
"He can be anywhere else. I told him that I'd make sure that he wouldn't regret coming back to coach us."
And Norton hasn't, though, he's surprised to hear Maualuga's scared of anything.
"With as big and strong as Rey is," Norton said, "he shouldn't be afraid of anybody."