INDIANAPOLIS -- It usually happens this way when talking steroids. Whispers turn into rumors. Rumors into questions. Questions into a nagging linkage that is tough to shake.

And so it goes for USC linebacker Brian Cushing here at the combine, this 6-foot-3, 243-pound workout warrior, this special talent who possesses an intricate dalliance with nutrition, supplements and weightlifting. All of it is an art perfected by Cushing, who is part of a quartet of USC linebackers here who have spent their college careers united as one but now seek to separate themselves in importance and in order.

Cushing walked up to the podium at his news conference on Saturday afternoon and looked serious, spoke seriously and looked agitated. He knew what was eventually coming, and before long, indeed, it did.

More inquisition about if he had a steroid history present or past.

The fact he knew the queries would be lobbed his way did not prevent his frustration with having to do this dance one more time. NFL executives, coaches and scouts have already asked him these things this week. Now this. And more to come in more interviews with more teams.

He said he told the clubs what he has told all that ask: "I tell them straight up that’s not true," Cushing said.

And for emphasis, he added: "I have nothing to hide."

Once he stepped down from the podium, we visited on the experience, this wonderful, dream of a chance being muddied by whispers, rumors of steroid use.

Sort of like coffee tossed on a rare painting.

"I don’t understand where it is coming from," Cushing told me. "I was tested last December at USC and passed, one of several tests I have passed. I was tested this morning here at the combine and those results should be out in a couple of weeks to a month, I believe. I think people are trying to find something, anything, that would detract from what I have done on the field. You learn in life if it’s not one thing, it’s the other. I hope once I pass the test here that this will be put behind me. I’m really hoping for that."

And that is key.

If the combine test shows Cushing steroids free, that should resolve this issue, this whisper turned into rumor turned into questions. He is not the first player at the combine to endure such scrutiny. He will not be the last.

It is out there. It has stuck.

An NFL general manager, requesting anonymity, said: "We’ve been warned it is an issue and might have been one since high school. We are considering that. As unpleasant as it is, this is an issue with this player that only a negative test here is going to clear up right now. It’s unfortunate, because no one wants to kill the kid, but the issue is a reality."

Target numbers

Gil Brandt has "target numbers" -- based on past performances -- that linebackers should hit in their combine drills in order to be considered prospects worthy of further evaluation.

» Brandt: What teams look for in drills
Inside linebackers
Drill
Target
40-yard dash
4.80 seconds
10-yard split (40)
1.70 seconds
20-yard split (40)
2.75 seconds
Bench press
24 reps at 225 pounds
Vertical jump
33 inches
Broad jump
9 feet, 6 inches
20-yard shuttle
4.20 seconds
60-yard shuttle
11.7
3-cone drill
7.20 seconds
Outside linebackers
Drill
Target
40-yard dash
4.70 seconds
10-yard split (40)
1.65 seconds
20-yard split (40)
2.70 seconds
Bench press
23 reps at 225 pounds
Vertical jump
36 inches
Broad jump
9 feet, 9 inches
20-yard shuttle
4.10 seconds
60-yard shuttle
11.4
3-cone drill
7.10 seconds

And a 30-year NFL scout added: "If I were to look at the entire 300-plus group of players here and ask myself based on my knowledge of steroids which one of these players is the prime prospect to have used it, he would be it. He has the physique and other attributes that indicate it. But he is fortunate. Unlike other sports, we test strongly for it. And if he passes that test, so be it. He gets a clean slate with us."

Cushing admits this: He is a perfectionist, a zealot when it comes to using all of the natural ways to increase his physique, endurance, muscle and performance. And he will not wait until the combine steroids test returns to show the upside of his grueling preparation.

There are 40s to be run and weights to be lifted and shuttle drills to complete on Monday for all linebackers. Cushing said he is primed to give it his all, show that he is the best among not only the USC linebackers but of all linebackers here.

Two other USC linebackers -- Rey Maualuga and Clay Matthews -- are considered first-day if not first-round picks. The fourth, Kaluka Maiava, could rise: He outplayed them all in the last Rose Bowl, where he was the game’s defensive most valuable player.

That is a dynamite quartet from one school, a group that has pushed each other all along the way and worked together to reach enviable heights at USC. Now each one knows what is at stake. The "Trojan brothers" are now competitors, jockeying for the best combine results and eventual highest draft slots.

"To be here with each other makes it a lot easier for us," Matthews said, the son of former NFL star Clay Matthews and nephew of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews. "None of our spots at USC were guaranteed; we had people behind us pushing us every day. When Rey said at the Senior Bowl that he was going to be the one that ran the fastest 40 here at the combine, that put a chip on all of our shoulders and gave us something to shoot for. No matter what, running, weight lifting or video games, I like to be first. I think we all share that."

Each of these USC linebackers garners extra attention.

Cushing gets the most, some of it for reasons he could do without.

"I guess with the A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez) thing going on in baseball that this is a hot topic and I don’t like being a part of it," Cushing said. "There really isn’t much I can do about it but show my skills here and wait until I get extra vindication from the test that I know will come. I can live with that. I have to."

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