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NFL preparation is a motivator too for the Trojans

Aside from team goals, Trojans juniors and seniors will be trying to position themselves for the next step in their football careers.

November 12, 2010|By Gary Klein

Motivation won't be a problem for USC on Saturday night against Arizona.

Not for Trojans upperclassmen, anyway.

Last week, four seniors received invitations to the Senior Bowl, a prestigious evaluation stop on the way to next April's NFL draft.

But center Kristofer O'Dowd, fullback Stanley Havili, cornerback Shareece Wright and receiver Ronald Johnson aren't the only Trojans seeking to impress pro scouts over the final four games.

With USC facing another bowl-game ban in 2011, draft-eligible juniors and third-year sophomores could be considering moves to the pros. Defensive linemen Jurrell Casey, Nick Perry and Armond Armstead, offensive tackle Tyron Smith and running back Marc Tyler are in those categories.

"It's kind of hard not to think about," said Casey, a junior. "I'm trying to stay focused and make sure I get things done the last four games so if I do decide to leave I can set that up for myself."

During the past decade, USC's clockwork appearance in bowl games typically left undecided Trojans less than two weeks to consider meeting the mid-January deadline to declare for the draft.

This season, the Dec. 4 finale against UCLA affords them more than a month to ponder their options.

Coach Lane Kiffin is braced for exits, recently acknowledging that when he is recruiting he no longer expects the very best players will exhaust their eligibility.

"I've trained myself, in our plan, that they're only going to be here for three years," Kiffin said. "… I calculate that any number of these guys are gone — and if they come back then it's just a bonus.

"But the reality is they usually don't."

Kiffin, a USC assistant from 2001-2006, does not have to look back far in history to recognize a trend.

Under former Coach Pete Carroll most Trojans players who entered the draft before completing their senior seasons were first- or second-round picks.

In 2003, defensive end Kenechi Udeze was the 20th player chosen. A year later, receiver Mike Williams attempted to turn pro after his sophomore year, was forced to sit out the season, then was selected in the first round in 2005.

Reggie Bush left after his junior season and was chosen second overall in 2006. Backfield mate LenDale White and offensive lineman Winston Justice went in the second round.

Safety Darnell Bing, a fourth-round pick that year, and offensive lineman Fred Matua, who was chosen in the seventh round, were held up by Carroll as cautionary tales.

Two years later, the Trojans' senior class was a billboard to remain in school.

Linebacker Keith Rivers, defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, offensive lineman Sam Baker and defensive end Lawrence Jackson all returned, became first-round picks in April 2008 and signed five-year contracts that guaranteed a combined $49.2 million.

Carroll believed the message was clear, but the tide started to turn the next year.

While safety Taylor Mays came back for his senior season, quarterback Mark Sanchez famously decided to forgo Carroll's advice and wound up hitting the jackpot as the fifth overall pick by the New York Jets.

Last season, on the field after the Emerald Bowl, defensive end Everson Griffen announced he was entering the draft. Shortly after news broke that Carroll was heading to the Seattle Seahawks, receiver Damian Williams and tailback Joe McKnight filed paperwork to turn pro.

Williams was not selected until the third round, Griffen and McKnight the fourth.

"The fourth round," Kiffin said, shaking his head.

Draft experts such as Gil Brandt say that players are almost always better off staying in school and developing their skills. But this year, with the NFL and its players in a labor fight, there is an added variable to the stay-or-go equation.

Though the NFL's current collective bargaining agreement ends in March, there will be a 2011 draft. A new deal with the players' association is expected to include a more rigid rookie pay scale, which would mean lower salaries across the board for first-year players.

Tyler, a junior who is the Trojans' leading rusher, said he has already made up his mind to stay at USC.

"It would be dumb for me to come out," he said. "I don't feel like I've played enough or showed yet that I could consistently be healthy. And I only have 14 more units left till I graduate."

Smith, a junior completing his second season as a starter, said he would put off making a decision.

"Of course I would think about it — but at the end of the season," he said. "Right now, I'm focused on the season."

So is Casey.

"My focus is on football and getting the last couple wins for the team," he said. "We want to make sure we leave with a good mark and not lose any more games."

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