The first time I encountered the NFL-bound Leonard Williams is quite the story, actually.
Once upon a time, Lane Kiffin was still at the helm of the Trojans coming off the team’s embarrassing loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, and it was the first spring practice of 2013. If I remember correctly, Kiffin had the notorious “Don’t talk about it, be about it” slogan imprinted on the field, and we all know how that turned out.
At the time, Ed Orgeron, better known as Coach O, was still in charge of the defensive line, and I was working with Orgeron’s unit as a student trying out to become a team manager, though, I only lasted in that gig for a week or so.
To this day, I still remember the fear that struck me when Coach O instructed me to run towards the left side of the line of scrimmage, as if I were an opposing running back, and there he was , all six-foot-five, 300 pounds of Williams, who was then just a young freshman.
Then, I thought to myself, “This guy is going to be one hell of a football player in the NFL one day.”
About two years, 20 sacks and 218 tackles later, the two-time all-American is projected to be at top-three pick in the NFL Draft by ESPN’s Todd McShay and Mel Kiper. The greater part of his draft preparation culminated on Wednesday with the program’s annual Pro Day, which is always a spectacle at USC.
In my three years covering the event, I’ve seen the likes of Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee come through this event and show their skills, speed and athleticism off to NFL scouts.
Year in and year out, there always seem to always be that one superstar for the Trojans that attracts a good majority of the overall media attention, but also helps out his teammates by bringing out scouts from all 32 NFL teams, as was the case on Wednesday.
In 2013, it was Barkley; in 2014, it was Lee; this year, it was Williams.
Tennessee Titans defensive line coach Giff Smith was the one running Williams’s through position drills. The Titans currently hold the number two overall pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.
At the end of the day, though, we already knew that Williams is going to be top pick, regardless of his performance on Pro Day.
As much as the pageantry and allure of it all surrounded Williams, though, the day carried much more importance for the other Trojans with NFL aspirations participating.
Players like wide receivers Nelson Agholor and George Farmer and running back Javorius “Buck” Allen especially benefited when it came to showing what they can do and improving their draft stock.
Farmer, in particular, had a lot to prove after being one of the nation’s top recruits in 2011 and then struggling to stay healthy in college; he didn’t really emerge until this past season when he caught for a little over 300 yards and four touchdowns as a junior.
Everyone was surprised when Farmer decided to leave school early and declare for the draft, but he silenced some of the doubters when he ran the 40-yard dash in an official time of 4.35 seconds.
For someone with a chip on their shoulder after not being invited to in the NFL Scouting Combine, Farmer’s impressive time, which is up there with the top-5 times from the Combine, definitely enhanced his chances at being drafted.
On the defensive side of the ball, cornerback Josh Shaw is taking all the field time in front of scouts he can get after a shortened senior season following his fabrication of rescuing his drowning nephew in the pool that resulted in an embarrassing debacle both for him and the program.
Yet Shaw has only improved his draft stock since the end of last season after standing out at the East-West Shrine game and the Senior Bowl, in addition to impressing scouts at the Combine.
It all culminated with Shaw showing his maturity on Pro Day though, by taking full responsibility for his actions in front of the media, saying that he truly regretted everything he did.
All in all, Pro Day is special because it’s a representation of childhood dreams coming true for many of these athletes, though, it’s also proof of USC’s ability to breed professional ball players, which serves as an excellent recruiting tool. It’s in the Trojan’s DNA.
By producing 483 NFL Draft picks all-time, more than any school but Notre Dame, and having more than 50 former Trojans on NFL rosters at the start of training camps last summer, USC has catapulted itself to becoming one of the nation’s top “football factories.”
Based on what I’ve now seen at a trio of pro days, there’s no doubt that the USC pipeline is literally, the “Fertile Cresent,” for professional scouts and based on the talent continuing to come in year after year via top-ranked recruiting classes, I don’t see that changing any time soon.
Darian Nourian is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Persian Persuasion,” runs Thursdays.