The most convincing case for Mark Sanchez wasn't made on the practice field Wednesday, but in a nearby auditorium a half-hour before USC's pro day even began.
There, Coach Pete Carroll gathered all the NFL coaches, executives and scouts in attendance and gave his thoughts on each of the school's prospects. He saved his best pitch for Sanchez, to whom he gave the Siberian-cold shoulder two months ago when the quarterback announced he was leaving early for the pros.
"He made a point to really go to bat for Sanchez," a scout said. "You could tell he meant it."
Carroll told the group that his public frosting of Sanchez -- including the comment the player made a "bad choice" -- was meant to test his resolve, to see if he truly had his heart set on turning pro right away or if he would waffle. Sanchez didn't waver.
"He told us, 'I challenged him. I wanted him to make the right decision,' " the scout said. "He said, 'I love the kid. I support him. I think he'll make a good pro.' "
About two hours later, with more than 100 talent evaluators taking note of his every move, Sanchez made his own case. He threw about 80 passes in a choreographed routine, using former Trojans Patrick Turner, Jason Mitchell and Dominique Byrd for targets. The ball seldom touched the ground as Sanchez moved to throw with a breeze at his back, in his face, and from the side.
Did it really matter? Some scouts said yes. They thought he sprayed his passes a bit at the scouting combine and that he needed to prove he had the arm strength and pinpoint precision required in the pros. Others weren't ready to dust off a spot for him in Canton.
"He looked pretty good when it was one on none," one observer said with a shrug.
This much is obvious: Sanchez aims to please. After his polished showing, he threw some additional passes for representatives from the Detroit Lions, who have the first pick. Then, he turned to the Seattle Seahawks, who pick fourth, and asked if they had any requests.
Sanchez is a longshot to go first -- Georgia's Matt Stafford had an impressive workout with the Lions, who might take an offensive tackle anyway -- and he might not be selected in the top five. Some of it could hinge on where Denver trades Jay Cutler, which the Broncos are determined to do.
Among the other teams interested in Sanchez are Jacksonville, which drafts eighth and took him to dinner this week, San Francisco (10th) and Denver (12th).
For his part, Sanchez is happy to show he can read a playbook and a defense, but he doesn't want to read tea leaves. A couple of former USC quarterbacks, Carson Palmer and Matt Cassel, told him not to try to guess where he might be headed, and not to fall in love with any teams.
So far, he's comfortable letting his future unfold in front of him -- with the knowledge his college coach is truly behind him.
Elsewhere on pro day:
* USC's top three linebackers all made a good showing, especially Rey Maualuga, who couldn't run at the combine because of a hamstring pull. He covered 40 yards Wednesday in a respectable 4.65 seconds. He was moving gingerly in the lateral drills, and later pulled off his day-glo green shoes to reveal a quarter-sized blister on the ball of his right foot.
As for the other two linebackers, New Orleans seems to be zeroing in on Brian Cushing with the 14th pick, and the New York Giants would be hard pressed to pass on Clay Matthews if he's around at 29.
It was a disappointing day for linebacker Kaluka Maiava, who tweaked a hamstring in the 40 and didn't participate in drills.
* A hamstring injury in the 40 also ended the day for cornerback Cary Harris, who has been somewhat unheralded -- as under the radar as a player can be at USC.
But fellow defensive back Kevin Ellison had a big day, running the 40 in 4.70 seconds, an improvement from his 4.85 at the combine. Draft guru Mike Mayock says that will have scouts envisioning Ellison as a strong safety again, and not in the less desirable role of weakside linebacker.