From the end of USC’s season on Dec. 21 up until the Jan. 15 declaration deadline, we watched the Trojans’ draft-eligible juniors trickle into the pool for the 2014 NFL Draft. First it was safety Dion Bailey, then center Marcus Martin, followed by defensive end George Uko, wide receiver Marqise Lee and tight end Xavier Grimble.
The loss of star contributors always hurts, but this year it especially stings. USC is still riding out NCAA sanctions, which means those five scholarships no longer being used cannot be transferred to add to their upcoming recruiting class. USC is now, after playing with fewer than 50 healthy scholarship players for a good deal of 2013 (compared to other schools’ 85), five more men down.
You shouldn’t blame the departing players, though. A new coach in Steve Sarkisian means another year of tweaking the offense post-Matt Barkley and the Trojans are now on their third defensive coordinator in three years. The decisions were made with their best interests in mind. It’s not a lack of loyalty — it’s just business.
All of them went to USC for a shot at a career in professional football. Right now, in my opinion, is the best time for each one of them to pursue that dream. All five will be drafted, and all five have the skills to establish lengthy NFL careers.
The most surprising early entry, for me, was Martin. He missed the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl due to an injury sustained against UCLA, but it didn’t require surgery and would have allowed him to return for spring practice in March, according to reports.
Still, his resume is pro-ready. He was a Freshman All-American at guard in 2011, and was USC’s only offensive player to make First Team All-Pac-12 this year. He moved to center in 2013 and acclimated well to being the leader of the offensive line. From what we’ve heard, his injury should allow him to return in time for NFL team workouts. His versatility is a plus, and after seeing both Barkley’s and Lee’s respective draft stock fall after fighting through injury-filled junior years, Martin couldn’t be blamed for not wanting to risk re-injury in 2014.
The other perplexing decision, on the surface, is Grimble’s. His numbers went down this season compared to 2012, as former head coach Lane Kiffin’s playcalling minimalized his receiving opportunities. Under Sarkisian’s wide-open offense, one that often used two tight end sets at Washington, Grimble seemed primed for a breakout senior campaign.
Grimble is 6-foot-5 and a little over 250 lbs. — and in today’s NFL, a big tight end with great hands like Grimble makes coaches salivate. Grimble never really became a receiving threat at USC, and I can’t blame him for taking his chances and hoping to be selected by an NFL squad that can better utilize his skill set. Just look at former UCLA tight end Joseph Fauria who went undrafted last year before catching seven touchdown passes for the Detroit Lions as a short-yardage threat.
Uko, on the other hand, improved at a linear rate at USC: from a backup role in 2011 to a starter in 2012, and finally to a scary pass rush threat in 2013. Though linebacker Devon Kennard returned to school for a standout senior campaign in 2013, Uko also witnessed fellow defensive lineman Morgan Breslin’s senior season devolve into injury and disappointment. And we shouldn’t forget the loss of beloved defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, whom Uko compared to a father, forcing a third set of schemes for Uko’s third year as a starter.
Bailey was a declaration we all saw coming. He played linebacker his first two years on the field, but a move back to safety in 2013 really allowed him to shine. He was still all over the field, and displayed his ability to be the general of a secondary and show off his pass coverage skills.
Bailey is slightly undersized for a linebacker at 6 feet tall, but it won’t prevent him from going in the second or third round in May. I don’t think another year would have boosted his stock into the first round, which means now is the right time to pursue the NFL dream.
Then there’s the no-brainer. Wide receiver Marqise Lee was as dazzling as he was hesitant in 2013, a season marked by injury scares and the emergence of sophomore Nelson Agholor. His Biletnikoff-winning 2012 performance showed how such a special talent would be best-served to enter the NFL — where his elite speed and pass-catching ability would earn him millions — as soon as possible.
Lee limped through 2013, but his seven-catch, 118-yard performance against Fresno State in the season finale was vintage Marqise Lee. An up-and-down junior campaign might push his stock down a notch, but a less-than-dominant senior year could have had him tumbling out of the first round, where he’s still projected in most mock drafts. Wide receiver is an injury-prone and short-lived position where one should cash in while they still can, and Lee is doing just that.
NFL Combine performances, individual workouts and interviews will determine where the chips lie for these five come May 8. Still, the process can be a crapshoot, as a former Trojan showed us just last weekend.
Former USC cornerback Malcolm Smith was a seventh-round pick in the 2011 draft. Most players drafted that low carve out roles as special teams contributors — if they’re lucky. But Smith will forever be a part of Seattle Seahawks lore after he capitalized off Richard Sherman’s pass deflection to make the Super Bowl-clinching interception a week ago.
As Smith showed us, it’s not about when you’re drafted — it’s how you make you mark. All five of USC’s draft-eligible juniors are hoping they can do just that.
Jacob Freedman is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column “Four-Point Shot” runs every other Monday.