DRAFT 2008: LINEBACKERS

Keith Rivers, an outside linebacker for the University of Southern California, lived up to the number he received upon entering college. As a result, he – like several linebackers who wore No.

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Rivers Expected to be First Linebacker Selected in 2008 NFL Draft

INDIANAPOLIS – Having played high school football near Orlando, Fla., Keith Rivers knew comparatively little of the number's imance.

Yes, Rivers – then one of the nation's top high school linebackers – knew No. 55 was a big deal around University of Southern California football. And yes, he knew something about the quality of linebacker who had worn the number before.

Junior Seau. Chris Claiborne. Willie McGinest. All wore the number at Southern California and all were All-America linebackers. But Rivers said he didn't know quite how big a deal it was.

After four years, he knows.

And Rivers – who is widely considered the top linebacker in the April 26-27 2008 NFL Draft – said living up to that number was a very, very big deal.

"Coming from Florida you don't get to watch the games and you don't know that much about it," Rivers said at the NFL Scouting Combine at the RCA Dome in downtown Indianapolis in late February. "After a while you develop a sense of how important it is and how important it is to practice hard every day and work hard in the weight room because the number means so much.

"It's bigger than you."

Rivers, who played four seasons at Southern California, is considered not only the top player at his position entering the draft, he also is considered by many analysts/observers likely to become the latest No. 55 from USC selected in the Top 10.

Seau, McGinest and Claiborne all three achieved the distinction – Seau No. 5 by the San Diego Chargers in 1990, McGinest No. 4 by the New England Patriots in 1994 and Claiborne No. 9 by the Detroit Lions in 1999.

Rivers, after what some analysts/observers labeled a disappointing senior season, enhanced his draft status in the view of many at his March 2 Pro Day, registering a 4.51-second 40-yard dash and a 42.5-inch vertical leap. Now, he is projected by most observers to be one of the first 15 players selected Saturday.

Some mock drafts have him being selected No. 7 by the Patriots, with few projecting him any lower than No. 10 to the New Orleans Saints.

"When it comes down to it, projections don't even matter," Rivers said. "What matters is what happens on draft day."

What mattered at Southern Cal was not only making a name for himself, but living up to the number he knew little about four years ago. One of the nation's most heavily-recruited linebackers in 2004 out of Lake Mary (Fla.) High School, Rivers selected Southern Cal over Florida, with the Trojans offering the number during the recruitment.

"I was the No. 1 linebacker coming out of high school," he said. "They offered it to me and I tried to live up to it. . . . I didn't understand the importance of it as I do now and as I have in recent years."

Helping him understand has been McGinest. Rivers said he and McGinest, who spent 12 years with the Patriots before joining the Cleveland Browns in 2006, talk frequently.

"He's a great guy," Rivers said. "Before the season he gave me some pointers. He called me and checked up on me. He talked to me about living up to the number. He talked to me a lot about how to go about my senior season. He just checks in on me, making sure I'm staying up on P's and Q's. . . .

"It's a great little club, little fraternity we have with No. 55."

Wearing a high-profile number was a big deal, Rivers said. And it brought with it pressure, but he said as important – as pressurized – was being the Trojans' team captain this past season.

"That's something your peers select you to be," he said. "They're expecting a certain amount of responsibility out of you to lead them. I think it's a lot of pressure being a captain and I enjoy it."

The Southern Cal tradition had an impact on Rivers beyond his position, he said. "Going into my junior year, (former Southern Cal defensive back and Pro Football Hall of Famer) Ronnie Lott spoke to the defense, asking us what we loved about the game," he said. "One thing he touched on that I kind of picked up and used for my own thing was every time you stepped on the field you wanted to get respect. I feel that way as well. That's the reason why I love playing this game. As my older brothers played I wanted to get their respect.

"Now whenever I step on the field every play I want to gain the respect of the guy I'm playing against."

Rivers, who played four seasons for the Trojans, was a two-time All-Pac 10 selection, finishing his career with 235 tackles, 16.5 tackles for losses, and 5.5 sacks. He has played all three linebacker positions, working out at middle, weakside and strongside linebacker at the Senior Bowl in January, and although he said he can play all three in the NFL, he said he is most comfortable on the strong side.

"That would probably be the one I like the most because I had the most reps there," he said.

Sometime during all of those reps, he became the latest No. 55 from Southern Cal to develop into a potential Top 10 overall selection. Four years ago, he said he may not have quite grasped the importance of that accomplishment.

Now, he understands completely.

"That's a big tradition," Rivers said. "Great linebackers have worn it and made it proud. I was honored to have it and tried to do my best to live up to it."

Breaking Down the Top Outside Linebackers

Keith Rivers of the University of Southern California is the top-rated player at the position – a potential Top 10 selection and the lone player at the spot expected to be selected in the first round. Quentin Groves, who played at Auburn, is considered by some a linebacker and is projected by others as a defensive end. He also is a potential first-round selection. Erin Henderson of Maryland and Geno Hayes of Florida State each forewent their senior seasons to enter the draft, with Henderson considered by some a second-round draft selection and a potential early starter in the NFL.

Outside Linebackers on the Colts' Roster

Freddy Keiaho, third NFL season; Tyjuan Hagler, third NFL season; Ramon Guzman, second NFL season; Victor Worsley, second NFL season.

THE OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

A look at the outside linebackers in the 2008 NFL Draft. Rankings and projected rounds are based on several national draft publications and in no way reflect the opinions of Colts personnel.

Rank, Player, Ht., Wt., School, Projected Round

1, Keith Rivers, 6-2, 241, Southern Cal, 1

2, Erin Henderson, 6-3, 244, Maryland*, 2

3, Geno Hayes, 6-1, 226, Florida State*, 2-3

4, Xavier Adibi, 6-1, 235, Virginia Tech, 2-3

5, Marcus Howard, 6-1, 237, Georgia, 2-3

6, Ali Highsmith, 6-0, 230, LSU, 3-4

7, Shawn Crable, 6-4, 245, Michigan, 4-5

8, Ezra Butler, 6-2, 244, Nevada, 4-5

9, Wesley Woodyard, 6-1, 227, Kentucky, 4-5

10, Alvin Bowen, 6-1, 223, Iowa State, 5-6

11, Bruce Davis, 6-3, 252, UCLA, 5-6

12, Brian Kehl, 6-2, 242, BYU, 4-5

13, Bo Ruud, 6-3, 235, Nebraska, 6-7

14, Gary Guyton, 6-2, 245, Georgia Tech, 6-7

15, Stanford Keglar, 6-2, 239, Purdue, 4-5

Breaking Down the Top Inside Linebackers

As has been the case several times in recent seasons, no inside linebacker is a lock to be selected in the first round. The opinions of analysts and experts vary on the top player at the position, with Dan Connor of Penn State considered by some the favorite to be the first player selected, while others believe it will be Jerod Mayo of Tennessee. Still others have Curtis Lofton of Oklahoma at the top of the rankings at the position.

Inside Linebackers on the Colts' Roster

Gary Brackett, sixth NFL season; Clint Session, second NFL season.

THE INSIDE LINEBACKERS

A look at the inside linebackers in the 2008 NFL Draft. Rankings and projected rounds are based on several national draft publications and in no way reflect the opinions of Colts

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