Mays’ shift to NFL a difficult proposition

Congratulations on a stellar four-year career with USC, Taylor Mays.

Now go ahead and play the opposite of your trademark style.

That’s essentially the message that the Trojans’ star safety has been receiving this week as he practices for Saturday’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. Even though it’s difficult to glean too much from an all-star game, Mays’ approach is coming under scrutiny.

At USC, Mays was revered by fans and coaches alike. He became the face of a program as a senior, albeit with disappointing team and individual results.

Mays showed he could at least approach the enormous hype that had followed him throughout his career (think back to his superhuman efforts against California), and his play always left observers wanting more.

But the criticism Mays received while in Los Angeles can’t compare with the lingering questions he faces from NFL teams interested in drafting him. And the severity of the concerns may force Mays to do some serious evaluating of his game.

Following Tuesday’s practice, Tony Pauline wrote on that Mays “looked stiff and mechanical with his defensive back fundamentals and really showed limited skills in pass coverage drills.” He also noted that “teams may start projecting Mays to outside linebacker based on his inability to make plays in centerfield.”

The analysis cuts deep for Mays because it gets to the very core of who he is as a player. Everyone at USC was tantalized with the idea of having a super-sized safety roaming the middle of the field. But the physical skill set that once seemed to be a point of pride now seems to be at least in some way a hindrance.

Criticism · Senior safety Taylor Mays made a name for himself with big hits and athleticism during his time with the Trojans. But the NFL draft prospect is seeing critical remarks for his focus on highlight reel hits. - Brandon Hui | Daily Trojan

Mays also carved out his niche at USC with a unique role in the defense. Pete Carroll’s phobia of teams throwing deep made it so that Mays frequently dropped so deep into coverage that it was almost ill-befitting of even a safety. Carroll frequently explained Mays’ lack of interceptions by saying that teams were afraid to throw anywhere near him, relegating his biggest plays to come on violent collisions.

But fairly or unfairly, Mays is now being scrutinized for being a potential liability in coverage. It’s a question Mays will have to answer quickly; safeties who are vulnerabilities in the passing game have a nasty habit of making early exits from the NFL.

Of course, Mays is not among the biggest reclamation projects at the Senior Bowl. Carroll still set Mays up to succeed at the professional level, something that can’t be taken for granted in the current landscape of coaching where winning takes priority over everything else.

Florida coach Urban Meyer, for instance, left star quarterback Tim Tebow riddled with questions that he’s still trying to answer this week as he attempts to salvage his draft stock. Tebow may be the most scrutinized player in the draft, and his stock is not as highly regarded as Mays.

But both players are being asked to radically change their approach to the game, and it won’t come easy. Mays never made excuses for his lack of interceptions, but he may have to give up his inclination to deliver knockout hits if he’s going to be seen as a legitimate safety professionally. And if he shows the same weaknesses for whatever team drafts him in the first round, the critiques will only get louder.

Mays doesn’t face too difficult a road toward salvaging his draft stock, however. A solid showing Saturday would go a long way toward erasing any doubts raised this week in practices. And there’s little doubt that he will shine in both USC’s Pro Day and at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

And barring an unforeseen tumble in the draft, Mays will still sign an exorbitant contract that will set him up for life.

Ah, to have the problems of Taylor Mays.

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