Rey Maualuga anticipates fight of his career

CINCINNATI -- Rey Maualuga had just gotten up from a 16-minute, 28-second interview with a trio of reporters when fellow Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Brandon Joiner approached with a question.

The 27-year-old Maualuga knew exactly what his younger teammate needed help with. He stopped his stride across the mostly empty locker room, bent his body into a defensive stance and started pointing and speaking linebacker jargon with Joiner who nodded eagerly along.

It was the very type of teaching lesson Maualuga had detailed moments before when he gabbed with the reporters. Ahead of what could very well be his final training camp with the Bengals, the veteran defender made it clear that while he's going to fight hard for a spot on the 53-man roster, he's still going to give advice to any of the players he's competing against who want to listen.

"I'm just out there to teach," Maualuga said. "So I'm doing whatever I can do to help the younger guys know how to line up and help them out with their playbook. Because eventually, we've got 12 linebackers and we're not going to keep all 12. If I can help someone be the best player in this short amount of time to do their job, then I can feel good about that."

Among the hottest offseason Bengals topics this spring and summer have been questions revolving around Maualuga's status as the team's starting middle linebacker. Several of the weekend mailbags that appeared on ESPN.com's Bengals blog the past few months were filled with fan inquiries about Maualuga, and whether he could be replaced by Vincent Rey, a veteran backup who played well in relief of Maualuga when he was injured three games last year.

Rey's 30 tackles, three sacks and one interception in those three games caught the fans' attention. Calls for him to take over the first-string "Mike" linebacker duties began and haven't ceased since, even as Rey starts camp as one of the top backups at all three linebacker positions. Those calls came at the same time Maualuga's production was waning. He finished with 47 fewer tackles in 2013 than he had in 2012, and miscues like his ill-timed personal foul penalty in the opener at Chicago last year combined to put him on the fans' bad side. That penalty ended any hope the Bengals had at putting together a final-minute comeback drive that might have won the game.

As for Rey, the backup said he's not concerned so much with trying to be the starter at any of the spots he plays. He just wants to get on the field, whether that's from off the bench or as a starter in specific situations like third-down or goal-line defense, much like he was last year.

"The honest truth is that for me it's more about getting on the field," Rey said. "And the thing is, you never know when you'll get on the field. That's the tougher position for me. I embrace it. I never know. I may be on the field at this position, or that position. I'm going to be ready. Whenever my name's called, I'm going to be ready."

That was Maualuga's approach when he arrived as a second-round draft pick from Southern Cal in 2009. He just wanted to play and learn from the players above him.

At the time, that meant hanging on to former "Sam" linebacker Rashad Jeanty's every word. It meant listening to all of former "Mike" linebacker Dhani Jones' pearls of wisdom, like the following that remain at the forefront of his mind.

"Coach Zim [former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer] asked Dhani, 'Why haven't you missed a practice since you've been here?'" Maualuga recounted. "He said, 'I'm afraid to lose my job.'"

After four seasons with the Bengals and six more in the NFL, Jones did in fact lose his job -- to Maualuga. When Maualuga opened the 2011 season at middle linebacker, he did so in place of the elder linebacker who wasn't re-signed after the 2010 season and soon after retired.

Reminded of how he became the Bengals' "Mike" linebacker, Maualuga paused and nervously grinned as the irony settled in.

"It's only due time until someone comes and takes my spot," he said. "I'm going to put up a fight, though."

He knows that fight might not be enough. Although there is much with respect to his position battle that he can control, the ultimate decision rests in the coaches' hands.

"My family's here. I want to be here," Maualuga said. "But there's a lot of great linebackers on this roster. We can't keep everybody.

"If I don't make it, I still know that I gave it my all and hopefully another team will be out there to pick me up."