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Taylor Mays is already USC's comeback player of year

COLLEGE FOOTBALL

The All-America safety's decision to return for his senior season was a major surprise, considering he'd have been a sure first-round NFL draft pick. But he wants to do more in college.

August 31, 2009|Gary Klein

Taylor Mays' surprising decision to put off the NFL and return to USC for his senior season came with a catch.

Hundreds, actually.

Every day after practice, the All-American safety positions himself anywhere from 20 yards to 20 inches away from a high-tech machine that whistles special gold-tipped footballs at his outstretched hands.

"I need to catch the ball," Mays says. "That's what the great ones do."

Mays is talking about the best NFL safeties.

Guys like Ronnie Lott, a Pro Football Hall of Fame member. Or Troy Polamalu, the Pittsburgh Steelers' All-Pro. Both are former USC All-Americans who made part of their fabled names by picking off passes.

Mays, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound senior, is one of the most intimidating hitters in college football.

But in 39 games, he has only four interceptions.

So when teammates head for the exit gate after workouts, Mays instructs the football equipment coordinator to dial up the velocity and fire footballs his way.

He catches them moving to his right. Leaping to his left. Coming forward and going back.

Never mind that NFL scouts had Mays pegged as a first-round pick in last April's draft.

The chance to improve, in ways large and small, was one reason Mays opted to delay the start of his pro career.

"He wants to make sure that he completes his game," Coach Pete Carroll says.

Mays, son of former NFL defensive lineman Stafford Mays, looked like a finished product almost from the time he arrived at USC.

When Josh Pinkard suffered a season-ending knee injury in the 2006 opener at Arkansas, the then-precocious freshman from Seattle moved into the starting lineup.

Mays' first interception came on a Hail Mary pass at Washington State, preserving a victory. He picked off two more passes that season and looked forward to an illustrious career of secondary thievery.

But in 2007 Mays intercepted only one pass. Last season, he was shut out.

Not that he got a lot of chances.

With the imposing and cheetah-fast Mays patrolling the field, opponents rarely attempt to challenge the Trojans deep.

But Mays acknowledges that there have been a few missed opportunities.

"I don't think it's a problem of bad hands," he says. "I just have to find the ball, track it and go up and catch it. I kind of get distracted. When I'm running with someone next to me, I get sidetracked."

So, Mays concentrates during workouts on nabbing balls thrown by Carroll, defensive coordinator Rocky Seto and Trojans quarterbacks. Then comes his daily post-practice appointment with the machine.

For some, it remains confounding: Why is Mays preparing for Saturday's opener against San Jose State rather than an NFL opener in two weeks?

Before last season's Rose Bowl, it was Mays -- not quarterback Mark Sanchez -- who was regarded as the USC player most likely to skip his final year of eligibility and turn pro.

Both had star turns against Penn State, Sanchez accounting for five touchdowns, Mays pulverizing a Nittany Lions receiver with a hit that also took out Trojans cornerback Kevin Thomas.

The NFL beckoned.

"All the stars were aligning," Stafford Mays says, chuckling.

Twelve days later, though, Mays shocked many by announcing he was coming back.

"He called me while I was watching TV one night and he said, 'Dad, would you be mad if I decided not to come out early and stay in school?' " Stafford Mays recalled. "I said, 'No, but why do you want to come back?' "

Mays told his parents he wanted to work on being a team leader. He was enjoying college and wanted to finish his degree.

"How do you argue with that?" his father says.

The ramifications of Mays' decision hit home on April 1, when NFL general managers, coaches and scouts descended on USC for the program's annual pro day.

Mays stalked the field like a caged animal while former teammates Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews and Rey Maualuga went through drills and testing.

"I was thinking of myself being there: How would I perform?" Mays says.

With his size and speed, Mays is considered a possible scouting-combine freak, a player so big, strong and fast he could be off the charts in the measurable tests such as the 40-yard dash and vertical jump.

But Mays wants more. He wants film.

"I don't want my stock to just rely on my 40 and my vert," he says. "I want it to be [measured by], 'What does he do on the football field and for his team?' "

So Mays is back, protected some by a $5-million insurance policy and determined to lead USC to its first national title since 2004.

USC features a new corps of starting linebackers, so Carroll is expected to deploy Mays in a variety of the ways that could create more chances for interceptions.

But Carroll does not want Mays to change the physical way he plays.

"He has a great influence as a physical presence," Carroll says. "He doesn't want to miss a chance to be himself."

Mays, though, doesn't want to miss opportunities.

"Make the plays when they come to you," he says. "Capitalize. That's what the great ones do."

Mays took advantage of one such chance a few weeks ago when he intercepted a Hail Mary pass at the end of practice.

A quiet settled over USC's facility as the prospect of Mays, with an open field before him, hit home.

Mays burst up the middle of the field, broke to his right and sprinted down the sideline to the end zone, laughing after he dived across the goal line.

Mays spent a few moments on his back before gathering with teammates and coaches for an end-of-practice team huddle.

Then, as the Trojans filed off the field, he cued the football equipment coordinator to rev up the machine.

For Taylor Mays, there was more work to be done.

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gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

By the numbers

Some of senior safety Taylor Mays' career statistics at USC:

180 - tackles

1 - forced fumble

4 - interceptions

18 - pass deflections

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