HAWAII GROWN REPORT
Maiava’s goal: start for USC
The junior linebacker is working hard to get into the starting lineup
Kaluka Maiava could feel the excitement rushing through his body as he lined up for one of the final plays of practice.
It was the same it had been all summer. Another hot August day was coming to an end and USC's practice field was filled with blue-chip recruits and future NFL stars.
Except on this day, the end was in sight. Four weeks of a rigorous fall camp for the nation's preseason No. 1-ranked team was coming to an end.
"It was a long month," Maiava said. "We were ready to start playing (other teams)."
The season opener against Idaho was just 48 hours away. The next time Maiava would strap on his crimson and gold No. 43, it'd be inside the famed Los Angeles Coliseum in front of more than 90,000 people.
The 2005 Baldwin graduate dropped back in coverage during the 11-on-11 scrimmage. He turned to chase one of USC's speedy receivers downfield when he felt something twinge in his leg.
In the final three plays of the last practice before the opener, Maiava strained his left hamstring. He attempted to play against the Vandals, but after five snaps, had to call it a game. He spent the second half in street clothes watching from the sidelines.
"It's just my luck that had to happen to me," the 5-foot-11, 230-pound junior said. "I played a couple kickoffs, but I was scared because it felt like there was a bubble in my hamstring that was about to pop."
Maiava suffered a broken foot and arm in high school, but has stayed relatively healthy in his first two years at USC.
The Star-Bulletin's high school defensive player of the year in '04 wasted little time earning playing time as a freshman. He played in all 13 games his first year and even started a game against Stanford.
He recorded 34 tackles as a sophomore and for the second year in a row, was honored as USC's co-special teams player of the year.
His play on special teams has been stellar. But with just two years of eligibility left, time is running out for Maiava to accomplish what he originally set out to do.
"Start and win a Pac-10 and national championship," Maiava said. "But I'm still working on that starting part."
Maiava has the talent to be a starter at most Division I schools, but USC is a different animal.
He currently backs up All-American candidate Keith Rivers at weakside linebacker. Rivers, a senior and team captain, heads the best starting linebacker corps in the nation with Brian Cushing and Rey Maualuga.
All three guys made either first or second all-conference teams last year and Rivers passed up millions of dollars in the NFL to return to USC for one last season.
"They really are the best," Maiava said. "Those guys are amazing to watch. (Rivers) leads by example and I just try to follow his lead."
The entire group is coached by NFL legend Ken Norton Jr., who spent six seasons with the Dallas Cowboys and seven with the San Francisco 49ers.
He is the only player to play for three consecutive Super Bowl winning teams and has helped bring that winning tradition to USC.
Norton Jr. was promoted to linebackers coach just prior to Maiava's freshman season. Maiava, who grew up on Maui, had no idea what to expect because he didn't know much about the two-time Pro Bowler.
"I didn't watch any pro football when I grew up," Maiava said. "But having him as a coach I can imagine how he was as a player."
Norton's intensity inspires the entire unit. In practice, he's the loudest guy on the field. If a receiver makes a catch he feels the linebackers shouldn't have allowed, he'll chase the receiver all the way down the field.
On game days, he will tape his fingers like he's the one taking the field.
"That guy is crazy," Maiava said. "He's nuts."
The Trojans have the weekend off before a showdown with Big-12 powerhouse Nebraska next Saturday. It's a key bye week for Maiava, who plans to play against the Cornhuskers. He didn't know if he'd be able to play in a game tomorrow.
Even when healthy, his playing time is sporadic. Some games, Norton Jr. will rotate him and Rivers a lot. In others, he might barely see the field.
It's a tough situation for most 20-year-olds to be in, especially for someone with Maiava's talents. However, USC has had the cure for athletes wanting more playing time in recent years.
It's called winning.
"There's a lot of guys on this team in the same situation," Maiava said. "I'm behind great linebackers. You want to play but it doesn't matter as long as we win.
"I love winning. It's the best part about being here."
With a wealth of talent at every position, it doesn't seem like that will change any time soon.
BY THE NUMBERS
Kaluka Maiava statistics