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This year's school of choice

Seven Trojans went in first two rounds of NFL draft, but history, especially recent USC history, shows early selection is no guarantee of success in pros.

May 19, 2008|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

The NFL draft pretty much put Lawrence Jackson through the wringer.

"Nerve-racking, stressful, lots of anxiety," he said. "It was kind of restless too."

The USC defensive end sat around for hours before the Seattle Seahawks offered relief by selecting him with the 28th pick of the first round.

But if waiting seemed tough, now comes the truly hard part.

History shows that although high draft picks get the hype and big signing bonuses, there are no guarantees that they will succeed in the professional ranks.

Even first-rounders are about a 50-50 proposition to become solid players in the league, experts say. That means the seven USC players selected in the first two rounds last month -- a school record -- have their work cut out for them.

"A lot of people talk about draft day and they say once you get there, you've got it made," said offensive tackle Sam Baker, another first-round pick. "It's more important what you do afterward."

The surplus of Trojans at the top of the draft was hardly unprecedented. Consider a recent run by Miami.

The Hurricanes had four first-rounders in the 2001 draft, five in 2002, four in 2003 and six in 2004.

That group included current NFL stars such as safety Ed Reed and running back Willis McGahee of the Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts receiver Reggie Wayne, New York Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey and the late Washington Redskins defensive back Sean Taylor.

Still, this year's draft was memorable for a group of USC seniors from the school's stellar recruiting class of 2003.

Defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis started things off, selected by the New Orleans Saints with the seventh pick. The Cincinnati Bengals chose linebacker Keith Rivers at No. 9 and the Atlanta Falcons took Baker at 21. Then came Jackson.

In the second round, offensive lineman Chilo Rachal went to the San Francisco 49ers (39th overall), tight end Fred Davis to the Redskins (48th) and cornerback Terrell Thomas to the Giants (63rd).

National media praised the USC program, and Coach Pete Carroll called it "a great day to be a Trojan."

James Harris, the former Los Angeles Rams quarterback who is vice president of player personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars, said he wasn't surprised by the demand for Trojans players.

Jacksonville drafted two of them -- linebacker Thomas Williams and tailback Chauncey Washington -- in the later rounds.

"We think a lot of the USC program and Pete Carroll," Harris said. "The way they practice and the way the develop their players."

But like others, Harris quickly added that pedigree and success in college don't always translate to the next level. Take a look at USC's recent history with the draft.

Since Carroll became coach in 2000, 17 Trojans have been selected in the first two rounds, not including the most recent draft.

Twelve of those players started for their teams for all or part of last season. Several others played significant roles as reserves, including wide receiver Steve Smith, who had several clutch receptions for the Giants in the Super Bowl XLII.

To some, those numbers might not satisfy the expectations placed upon high picks. Of the 17, only three -- quarterback Carson Palmer, safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker Lofa Tatupu -- are stars in the league.

On the downside, receiver Mike Williams and offensive lineman Jacob Rogers are considered busts. And the jury is still out on former USC stars such as Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, Dwayne Jarrett and Winston Justice.

Players from any major-college program should have an edge because they have practiced against quality teammates and played at the highest levels of college football.

All of this gives them the benefit of the doubt on draft day.

"If you're an NFL personnel guy and your job is on the line, which it is every year, it's a heck of a lot easier to take the kid from USC," said Mike Mayock, a draft expert for the NFL Network. "You can cover your backside when you take the guard from USC as opposed to the guard from Bloomsburg University."

Mayock added, however, that "sometimes the big-school kids get too much benefit."

Last season's Pro Bowl rosters included Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who went to Eastern Illinois; Indianapolis free safety Antoine Bethea, from Howard; former New England Patriots defensive back Asante Samuel, from Central Florida; and Minnesota Vikings safety Darren Sharper, from William & Mary.

"You can't rule out individual players who excel from small schools," Harris said. "Work ethic, the passion for the game -- those are things that affect the transition."

And that's where players from big schools can be vulnerable. The talk about USC on draft day included murmurs of doubt.

"You can't just walk into the NFL expecting to dominate like you did in college," Mayock said. "Sometimes I think the big-school guys have a tendency to say, 'I've got my money, I'm going to be fine.' "

ProFootballTalk.com suggested that "a surprising number of busts" had made NFL teams leery.

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