Even with all of the fans lining the barrier of Cromwell Field on Wednesday, USC’s annual pro day was a somewhat subdued spectacle.
Maybe it was Texas’ concurrent pro day drawing away scouts. Maybe it was the fact that Pete Carroll didn’t make a return to Los Angeles — instead he was in Austin, Texas, scouting Longhorns. Or maybe it was the lack of a player like Mark Sanchez to draw everyone in.
In any case, Wednesday’s audition for the NFL draft lacked the hyperbole that normally accompanies such events. Former Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford and former Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant received more attention for their individual workouts than more than dozen Trojans.
But even in such a quiet setting, there were still plenty of small opportunities for many USC players to sway NFL teams.
For safety Taylor Mays, it seemed odd that he was even on campus. Touted as one of the best physical specimens in college football since his freshman year, Mays seemed like a lock to leave after his junior season. But Mays has found that even the most physically gifted prospects are closely scrutinized.
“It’s like I’m a newborn baby,” Mays said. “It’s what everybody has to do; it’s part of the process. That’s what makes it special, having to prove yourself again.”
After running a disputed yet undoubtedly fast 40-yard dash time at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, Mays elected not to run the drill at USC. But the safety still had something to prove to scouts in attendance and participated in defensive back drills.
“These drills were most important to me because they show what I don’t show on film,” Mays said. “They know I can run fast and hit, but being able to be a big safety and move is the biggest question mark.”
Part of Mays’ preparation for the NFL has been a rewiring of his playing style. After meeting with several NFL teams, Mays realized that the role he played at USC will be different from the one on his future team.
“I was taught to go for the receiver. In the NFL, you get paid to make interceptions,” Mays said. “I wasn’t really coached to do it at USC, but I know I can do it in the NFL.”
Fellow safety Will Harris might have had the most impressive day of anyone in attendance. After making the most of his sole year as a full-time starter, Harris ran a 4.59 40-yard dash and posted an incredible 35 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
Harris doesn’t generate the same kind of recognition that Mays or USC’s other elite prospects do, so making the most of this opportunity could prove critical in catching a team’s attention.
“There are a couple of things I could have done better, but I did well on a lot of things, so at the end of the day I’m happy,” Harris said.
Joe McKnight used the day as a means of distancing himself from his USC career. The running back repeatedly stated that he felt his three years in Los Angeles did not live up to expectations. After a somewhat tumultuous ending to his time at the school, McKnight is looking forward to starting a new chapter.
“I could have done more these past three years,” he said. “But things happen for a reason.”
Comparisons to Reggie Bush followed McKnight around USC since his arrival as a freshman from Louisiana. As he moves on to the professional level, McKnight just wants the chance to be himself.
“I tried to do too much of the stuff [Bush] did instead of playing my ball,” McKnight said of his playing career at USC.
For running back Stafon Johnson, the day was an opportunity to restate his perseverance — not that anyone needed confirmation of that. Johnson has remained resolute in returning to football since a grisly weightlifting accident forced him to undergo emergency surgery on his vocal cords.
Johnson proved that he belonged by returning to the field and working out at the level of any other prospect expecting to get drafted. Wearing a shirt that said “God has a plan” on the back, Johnson displayed confidence in his performance and NFL future.
“Mentally, I’m stronger than ever,” Johnson said. “Right now, just going through the process had made me mature and more determined to get the job done.”
If there was one thing that was universal for all of the players Wednesday, it was the sense that the process was wearing on them. With three weeks until draft day, there’s only so much the players can do before the process comes to an end.
Maybe then it will be easier to find meaning in this pro day.
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