The Trojan influence on the draft is another example of the overall rise in the program since Pete Carroll took over as head coach. It's not by accident that the USC players are showing up better prepared emotionally and physically for the realities of making the leap from college football to the professional level. When the Orange Bowl ended and Carroll declared to the Trojan faithful "we're just getting started" he could also have been talking to the graduating seniors because each of them has taken on a crash course of agents, workouts, meetings and a lot of uncertainty as they approach the draft.
What do you do when you're a college football player and all of a sudden you've played your final bowl game and you're no longer an official part of a team? It's a no-mans land for many athletes who have lived for so long in the structured environment of the program. After being told when and where to go for so many years a player is now on his own to make some very important decisions. It starts with choosing an agent, there are a lot of options out there with a wide variety of skill level and integrity. For a player like Palmer it was a matter of sifting through the proposals that had been flooding in and making sure to pick the right fit. For others it could be a matter of selecting an agent who has a particularly strong nutrition program, a speed program or who is known for having good contacts in the league. Many agents want their athletes to enter specialized training programs but many USC players this year also elected to continue with the workout program designed by the Trojan strength and conditioning staff while still utilizing the USC facilities. There is also the option of staying in school or concentrating full-time on training for the draft. Is it better to continue with your education and routine while getting ready for the draft or does it make more sense to leave school for the semester to devote yourself exclusively to preparing for an event that is so vital to your professional future? For each athlete the factors that go into these decisions are different and it helps to have a coach who knows how to assist you through the process.
"Coach Carroll had a great impact early on in terms of telling us what to believe and what not to believe" said Bill Palmer, father of Carson. "Pete knows the league inside and out so I'm certainly going to listen to what he has to say".
Pat Kirwan is a longtime NFL front office executive who currently writes a column for NFL.com.
"Carroll is aware of the trappings involved with preparing for the draft" said Kirwan. "He's going to be proactive by educating young guys on doing the right thing."
The first major opportunities to showcase the abilities as a football player came in the all-star bowl games. Carson Palmer and Justin Fargas led the Trojan contingent at the Senior Bowl, which is generally considered to be the most prestigious of the events due to the participation of NFL staffs, and both came away with a positive experience. Palmer went into the week of practice as the favorite to be the top choice in the draft and he came away with the same distinction after displaying all of the attributes that Trojan fans know so well. Fargas entered the week with something to prove and he definitely delivered with an eye-popping 40 time and an impressive showing as a runner. At this point last year Fargas was an uncertain commodity amid concerns about his health but now he is poised to be among the first few RB's selected. Sultan McCullough took advantage of his appearance in the Shrine all-star game when he broke off a long TD run that gave everybody a glimpse of what can happen when Sultan gets into the open field.
The Scouting Combine held each year in Indianapolis has traditionally been the place to be if a player wanted the opportunity to workout in front of pro scouts but one change that we've seen in recent years is the importance placed upon individual school Pro Days as opposed to the Combine. The Combine is still a vital event but more and more colleges are hosting all day workouts on their campuses with the pro scouts coming by in droves to get a look at all the players in one spot. The Trojans held their Pro Day in mid-March and it was a milestone day that marked the return of the USC Trojan program to powerhouse status in the minds of NFL people who make their living by evaluating talent.
"I went to 20 Pro Days and by far the speed on the field as a group at USC was the best I saw all year at any school," said Kirwan. "The Trojans had four guys run under 4.4 in the 40, that's unheard of. The 2nd dimension that was unique about the Trojan Pro Day performance was the strength in the weight room on the bench. All the RB's are doing 25, 27 reps on the bench and that's better than a lot of linemen are doing at other schools. Many scouts felt that was the sign of SC coming back because the combination of strength and speed really separated them from anywhere else."
Some of the highlights from the ProDay were the 4.27 40 turned in by Darrell Rideaux, the 43.5" vertical from Troy Polamalu and the 34 reps of 225 lbs. on the bench by Bernard Riley. Kirwan was also impressed by a couple other factors including the presence of Carson Palmer and the team spirit surrounding the USC program.
"Carson didn't have to perform at the Pro Day if he didn't want to. He already had his personal workout scheduled with the Bengals for two weeks later but he went anyways because he wanted to help his teammates perform better by having them catching passes from the person they were most comfortable with," said Kirwan. "It also caught my eye that all the underclass players were down in the weight room supporting the guys and getting a taste of the event. NFL guys look for stuff like that to see how the future is going to look. You don't see anything like that at other schools. Nobody is ever there. Pete Carroll is all over the team dimension. A lot of coaches want it to happen but it doesn't always happen. Those players are getting the full blown package from Pete, he sold and they bought. They trust him."
The final weeks leading up to the draft have been nerve racking for many of the players. For someone like Palmer, it has been relatively calm as he has been primarily dealing with one team and he knows that no matter where he goes in the draft he will get an extended opportunity to show what he can do. For someone like Malaefou MacKenzie, it is a matter of finding a team that will appreciate the skills that he brings to the table and the Bengals in particular would be wise to take a look at drafting Malaefou to join his good friend Carson. For others such as Chad Pierson or Darrell Rideaux it is a much wider spectrum as they wait to find out if they are selected or if they must go the free agent route and prove themselves quickly. So many factors can come into play such as the recent shooting of Oregon State CB Dennis Weathersby and how that might effect the draft board for the corner position. Will that impact a player like Rideaux? We will find out soon enough. The good news for Trojan players is that the NFL personnel are aware of the teachings and development going on at USC right now and that can only be a benefit.
"The NFL guys know what Pete is and what he's doing," said Kirwan. "For instance, they know they can go there for pro corners. Look at Chris Cash, he was a 6th round draft choice and ended up being a major contributor as a rookie for the Lions. He was the first indication to a lot of pro guys that something is happening there."
There certainly is something happening in the land of Troy right now and the good times will continue on Saturday. Congratulations to all the Trojan seniors and good luck as you begin your professional careers.
Bernard Riley at bench press while Fred Matua and others cheer him on.