Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Browns LB Maiava finally gets chance to make a difference

AP Photo / Mark Duncan

Cleveland linebacker Kaluka Maiava has had to fill in for injured starters before, but never when the Browns still were playing meaningful games.

The little big man has done this drill before.

It is so much more important this time for Kaluka Maiava to do it well.

In 2009, when Maiava was a rookie Round 4 draft pick, the Browns’ linebacking corps was rocked by a season-ending injury to D’Qwell Jackson. At that point, coordinator Rob Ryan shuffled Maiava into a starting role, but what did it matter? The season was gone. The team was 1-5, on its way to 5-11.

After a knee injury wrecked Maiava’s 2010 season, he had to fight to make the team in 2011. He impressed a new head coach and a new coordinator enough to do so. As in his rookie season, he got the call when a No. 1 linebacker got hurt.

He replaced Scott Fujita for the last five games. But again, what did it matter? The Browns were 4-7 when Fujita went down. There was nothing for anyone to save.

Now it is 2012. Maiava again is starting because a No. 1 went down. But there is a huge difference this time. He is starting at the start.

He is starting with an entire season full of possibilities out there for the Browns.

It might matter this time if the little big man steps up.

Not that anyone expects him to. He’s simply too little. He’s not Clay Matthews, he’s not Brian Cushing, he’s not Rey Maualuga — even though he was every bit as much a starting linebacker at USC as they were in 2008, when the Trojans were monsters, at one point routing Ohio State 35-3.

Maiava was greatly appreciated at USC, but not so much outside the inner circle. When he first came to the Browns, in the public eye, he was a cute story ... a kid from Maui who used to hunt wild boars with his bare hands.

That story went away, and as time went on, he was just a little backup linebacker on teams that went nowhere.

“Last year, I kind of filled in when Fujita went down,” Maiava says. “I’ve always been in the backup role.

“I’m always ready when the coaches call my number.

“Obviously, I want to play more than just a backup role. I’m ready for the responsibility.”

A certain AFC North rival was suspicious as to how ready Maiava was when he was an injury-replacement starter last year.

“They ran like 40,000 leads at me,” Maiava said. “I’m sure they saw me as a backup guy, a smaller guy they were going to test.

“We lost, but it definitely proved myself to my teammates ... showed my toughness.”

At 5-foot-11, 230 pounds, Maiava is playing on the outside in a 4-3 front. He must prove he is stout enough to stand up against power running games and cagey enough to cover fast tight ends half a foot taller than him. He’s fast. He has that going for him.

“Everybody brings up my size,” Maiava said. “I’ve been 5-11 since high school. That’s not going to change. I’m not going to get a five-inch growth spurt anytime soon.”

Perhaps a knowledge spurt will help. Last year, he had to impress new defensive coordinator Dick Jauron on the fly, since the offseason got swallowed by a lockout.

“I have a better understanding of the playbook now,” he said. “Having been around the guys a lot this year really helps.

“I’m as healthy as I’ve been. I feel good.”

Given Maiava’s longevity with the team — only five Browns have stuck around longer — Ohio is starting to feel like home. Just as he never will be 6-foot-5, though, Cleveland never will be Maui.

“I went home to Maui after last season,” he said. “I was training the whole time. Beach runs. Early in the morning.

“I definitely enjoyed myself in my off time, but I also got some work done.

“I lost some weight. I feel lighter. I feel quicker. I feel a lot better. This is the best I felt since coming out of college.”

It’s a perfect time than. He’s starting in the opener against the Eagles.

Is he glad for that? Dumb question.

“Who comes in the league wanting to be a backup?” he said.

1 comment: