They will converge on the Rose Bowl with their stopwatches, binoculars and laptop computers. Already, their palm-sized notebooks are filled with body descriptions, their scouting booklets overflowing with opinions scribbled in dark video rooms.
These are NFL talent evaluators, the first set of eyes and ears that influence draft-day decisions with millions upon millions of dollars at stake.
As of midweek, 14 pro scouts had been credentialed for Saturday’s rivalry game between USC and UCLA — four of them from the Miami Dolphins, who play at the Rams on Sunday. They will have seats in the press box during the game, although some will be on the field before kickoff to get an up-close view of the prospects.
Eight UCLA players were selected in the last draft, among them defensive tackle Kenny Clark, taken by Green Bay in the first round, and linebacker Myles Jack, chosen in the second by Jacksonville. There were four USC players selected, the first being linebacker Su’a Cravens, taken in the second round by Washington.
As it has each year since 2005, the Los Angeles Times asked scouts from three NFL teams to open their notebooks and share their otherwise confidential observations on which players in this cross-town game are the most promising pro prospects. The scouts are not identified because they are disclosing internal information. They are focused on draft-eligible players because the league doesn’t want evaluators sharing the pros and cons of underclassmen.
These opinions are merely a snapshot, one piece in a mosaic that includes months of postseason study. A player’s draft stock can rise or fall depending on his performance at events such as the Senior Bowl, the scouting combine and campus pro days.
But this is where the big-money decisions start taking shape.
“We enjoy these matchups,” one of the scouts said. “These will be the ones we pull first in draft meetings to watch. We’ll pull Alabama against LSU, we’ll pull USC against UCLA.”
So if standout USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster winds up directly across the line of scrimmage from UCLA’s best cornerback, Fabian Moreau?
“That would be a matchup we’d want to see,” the scout said. “You want to see the best against the best, speed against speed, power against power.”
The USC players the scouts are watching closest are Smith-Schuster, cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, running back Justin Davis, defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu and offensive linemen Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler. For UCLA, it is Moreau, tackle Conor McDermott and defensive linemen Takkarist McKinley and Eddie Vanderdoes.
The scouts also commented on USC redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold, who isn’t eligible for the draft but whose play has been instrumental in turning around the Trojans.
Here’s what they had to say:
USC's right tackle will be the biggest person on the field at 6-9, 360 pounds. He’s the son of former NFL tackle Lincoln Kennedy.
Scout 1: “He can just swallow and engulf college players if he hits them square. His problem is sliding his feet on the open side and protecting his edges. … He might be too big to play guard in the NFL because it’s so hard to throw over him.”
Scout 3: “To me, he’s a one-position player. He has to play right tackle.”
Despite being slowed by a high ankle sprain earlier this season, he has rushed for more than 2,000 yards in his USC career.
Scout 2: “He’s not overly dynamic but he can make sharp cuts and he’s slippery. He doesn’t have unique qualities, but he’s a pretty good all-around player. He’s a third-day guy in the draft [Rounds 4-7].”
The fastest player on the field has four interceptions and is in the top 10 nationally in returning punts and kickoffs. USC lists him at 5 feet 11, 185 pounds.
Scout 1: “He’s an instant-impact guy in the NFL as a kick returner, and I’ve even heard some scouts talk about him as a receiver, which I can see. … I wouldn’t be shocked if he went in the first round, but he’s more of a second-round player.”
Scout 2: “He may struggle against a bigger receiver, get pushed off a route or bounce off a tackle. You don’t like to draft a small corner in the first round unless they’re really dynamic. This guy may be. He’s pretty damn good.”
Scout 3: “As fast as he is, people just have a way of getting behind him for some reason, so I think there’s a ceiling as a defensive player.”
UCLA’s 6-8 left tackle has an older brother, Kevin, who is an NFL long snapper.
Scout 1: “He’s very tall and a little stiff. He probably needs to play on the right side in the NFL. He needs to bend his knees and get better leverage, or otherwise he’ll just get walked back.”
Scout 2: “He’s a position and wall-off blocker, someone who shields you or walls you off like in basketball. He doesn’t try to overpower you and tries to win with angles. He’s got pretty good feet for a big guy but he’s a waist-bender who struggles with counter-moves.”
Among these scouts, this is UCLA’s most intriguing prospect. Even though he played sparingly in the first three games while recovering from a groin injury, he has 18 tackles for loss with 10 sacks.
Scout 1: “He’s strong off the edge and has great length. … He stays on blocks a little bit, but if he beats you with his first-step quickness he’s in the backfield all the time.”
Scout 2: “Love the motor, love the range, love the violence. He’ll be a first- or second-rounder. He needs to develop a better pass-rush arsenal.”
Scout 3: “Seems like every week he makes more plays and has more of an impact.”
One scout said he could envision Moreau being selected in the second or third round and quickly working his way onto the field as an NFL cornerback.
Scout 1: “You don’t look at him and say, `Wow, there’s a ton of upside. I really want to get my hands in there and work on this guy.’ I think he’s a nice player that gets into your rotation right away as your nickel, and then he winds up starting at corner for you.”
Scout 3: “He’s tall [6 feet], good build, good person. He’s been a good player, but he has some issues finishing, late in plays where he doesn’t trust his technique. He’ll either give up some plays when he’s in good position, or he’ll commit a foul and get flagged for breaking down at the last second and grabbing when the ball’s at the catch point.”
He has 51 catches for 682 yards and eight touchdowns, well off the 89 catches for 1,454 yards he made for USC last season. Still, scouts are bullish on his NFL future.
Scout 1: “Really good hands, physical in his routes. I do question the top-end speed a little bit, but I think he’s fast enough.”
Scout 2: “He has enough speed to get on top of you at the college level, and he can separate underneath. I think he’s a late first-, second-round type.”
Scout 3: “He was clearly frustrated early in the year, but as soon as [the Trojans] hit their stride, he’s been a totally different player, playing with confidence, finishing routes, making tough catches, things he wasn’t doing in September.”
A transfer to USC from Utah, he has served a Mormon mission, so at 25 he’s considerably older than most college players.
Scout 1: “Hard guy to move inside. He’s the type of guy that ends up on the back end of a roster in the NFL and plays in run situations.”
After recovering from a serious knee injury last season, he has been the linchpin of everything UCLA does to stop the run. He doesn’t have overly impressive statistics, but that’s partly because he constantly draws double-team blocks.
Scout 2: “I liked him when he was a younger guy, but I don’t see the same explosion or movement skills since he had the knee [injury]. He needs to stay in school and get healthy.”
Scout 3: “He’s a very good hand-user, somebody who can disengage and play off the blocks. He really knows how to play the game. More of a run player than a pass rusher, but he’s kind of sneaky. He knows how to slip off guys. If he’s close, he sniffs it and he’ll come off a block to make a play.”
A 6-7 left tackle, he was missed when he sat out USC’s first two games with an injury.
Scout 2: “This kid has a lot of athletic tools, and he’s got size. He may have the most upside of all their linemen. He’s played a lot of football, so you question why he’s still so raw.”
Scout 3: “Little bit better pass protector than a run-game player. He’s a mid-tier, backup-level player in the league.”
The scouts said they are particularly looking forward to watching USC's quarterback, even though he isn’t eligible for the draft.
Scout 1: “He’s fun to watch. He’s changed their whole season. The way he moves in the pocket, throws the ball, the poise he has. He extends plays, keeps his eyes down the field. Without really studying him, he looks like the real deal.”
Scout 3: “I’ll look forward to meeting him … three years from now.”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer