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NEXT-LEVEL PLAYING FIELD

Times Staff Writer

They debate the merits of NFL prospects not in chat rooms, but in what they call “war rooms.” They carry clipboards, stopwatches and the knowledge that multimillion-dollar decisions hinge on their observations. They spend countless hours on the road, attending college football games and practices, breaking down tape, quizzing coaches, collecting clues -- anything that might give their team an edge.

They are NFL scouts, paid to judge players. And they’ll be watching closely Saturday when No. 1 USC plays No. 11 UCLA at the Coliseum in a game featuring more than a dozen soon-to-be professionals.

At The Times’ request, three NFL scouts opened their books and anonymously gave their opinions on which players have dreamy futures in the league, and which ones are simply dreaming.

Although the Bruins could pull off an upset Saturday, the Trojans won the NFL scouts’ position-by-position analysis in a blowout.

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* Quarterback: Despite Drew Olson’s 30-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, the choice in a landslide was USC’s Matt Leinart, who has long been considered a top-three pick.

Scout 1: “I think he’s a left-handed Tom Brady. Carson Palmer had all of the physical attributes, and Leinart isn’t in that category. But makes up for it mentally.”

As for Olson, who is expected to be taken on the draft’s second day: “He’s more of a very good college quarterback having a great year.”

Scout 2: “Leinart in the Notre Dame game was him in a nutshell. He didn’t play great the whole game through, and he made some throws that you’re thinking, ‘Wow, what was he thinking?’ But with the game on the line, making that audible at the end -- just the guts, the charisma. He has the ‘it’ factor.”

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Scout 3: “He’s a dynamic person, a dynamic leader that guys really respond to. I was standing behind him during pat-and-go [warmups] at the Washington State game. Just watching him, with that band playing, you get the chills. He’s just got that air of quiet leadership.”

* Running back: Reggie Bush ran away from this field the way he ran away from Notre Dame and Fresno State. Each of the scouts said the Trojan junior is likely to be the top pick in the draft because, unlike a quarterback who will have to sit and learn, he can make an instant impact.

Scout 1: “He’s the best I’ve ever scouted. He’s not the perfect size. But ... he’s a rare, rare player. He’s a faster Marshall Faulk.

Scout 2: “He’s so fun to watch that you get caught up in watching him and not scouting. I’ve talked to other scouts, and the only [running backs] they said compared to this guy were Barry Sanders and Bo Jackson. With those guys, you just knew what they were going to do as soon as they got to the NFL. Same with Bush.”

Scout 3: “Even at his size, he can move piles. There can be nothing there. He can still hit it up in there, slither through traffic and get three, four yards. We call that ‘in-line’ yardage. There’s not going to be a lane every time. You’ve got to get those yards. That’s why you have those 230-pound backs. That’s usually what size does for you. This guy can do that and he can do the breakaway stuff.”

A fairer comparison, the scouts said, would be between USC’s LenDale White and UCLA’s Maurice Drew, although White, at 6-2, 235 pounds, is significantly bigger than the 5-8, 205-pound Drew. Scout 2 said Drew would be “a very good second back and an OK No. 1 back,” who might make his mark in the NFL as a return man and/or a third-down back.

Scout 2 saw White as a second-round pick, “a between-the-tackles guy with average open-field speed. He’s a great short-yardage back, and he showed some burst against Notre Dame. It wasn’t great, but it was good.”

Asked if White, a junior, might benefit from staying an extra year at USC, Scout 3 said: “It certainly wouldn’t hurt him to stay in, but we’ve seen enough of him to know who he is.”

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* Tight end: UCLA earned its only unanimous edge, with the scouts favoring Marcedes Lewis over Dominique Byrd. Lewis’ stock has climbed this season, the scouts said, because he has improved dramatically as a blocker.

Scout 1: "[Lewis] doesn’t time very fast, but he plays fast. He has excellent size, outstanding hands and body control.”

Scout 2: “Byrd might be a little more athletic out of his breaks, out of his cuts, but as far as size, work ethic and blocking, Marcedes separates from the pack. He’s shown more intensity blocking this year. That’s moved him from that second-round area to late first.”

Scout 3: “You want the complete guy, especially if you’re going to take him high. You’ve got to run the ball. And if you have to sub him out on the run plays, you’re tipping people off. I see Lewis going at the top of the second, maybe late first. ... With Byrd, something’s missing. ... He’s a solid middle-round guy.”

* Receiver: USC’s Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith are the leaders of this group. Jarrett, a sophomore who is not draft-eligible, is said to have NFL star potential, and Smith, a junior, is as reliable as they come. The Trojans are so deep in this area that the scouts are even taking a hard look at reserves who get limited playing time.

Scout 1: "[USC’s] backups could start at UCLA. Jarrett has rare size, strength, hands, body control. Looks like a faster Mike Williams to me.”

Scout 2: “USC has that mold they go into. They had it with Mike Williams and Keary Colbert. Now they’re doing it with Jarrett and Smith. I’ve heard scouts say they’d take Jarrett over Williams. ... With Smith, I don’t see him being as good as Keary Colbert. I don’t see the top-end speed. But he’s a good move-the-chains guy, a good underneath possession receiver.”

Scout 3: “Smith will do the dirty work. He’ll go across the middle and do the tough stuff. ... Jarrett does it all. Barring injury or a character problem, he’s going to be a superstar.”

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* Offensive line: The linemen who most intrigue the scouts are all from USC -- right tackle Winston Justice, who protects the blind side of the left-handed Leinart, and guards Taitusi Lutui and Fred Matua.

Justice and Matua are juniors who have not announced whether they intend to turn pro after this season; Lutui is a senior.

Scout 1: “Justice isn’t the hugest guy, but he’s quick. He’s a possible first-rounder. The guards are first-day picks.”

Scout 2: Justice has “got a chance to be a left tackle in the NFL. At least teams will try him there. He needs to show more consistency.

“You’re looking for that snap and punch, a guy who’s strong enough to anchor inside but quick enough to make those reach blocks. He could be a starter in the first couple years in the league. ... Lutui is a big, thick, short-area guard. I have him as a fourth-round pick.”

Scout 3: “There’s some buzz on [Justice] in the scouting community.... He’s inconsistent. I would say he’d go between 30th and 50th pick, but someone may fall in love with him.”

* Defensive line: The scouts like both Trojan defensive ends, Lawrence Jackson and Frostee Rucker, as well as defensive tackle LaJuan Ramsey. But none of those is considered an elite player at his position.

Scout 1: “Jackson’s the best player on the line. Rucker will be taken somewhere between the second and fourth rounds. ... Ramsey really flashed a lot of stuff until he got hurt.

“He’s playing now, he’s just hurt. He’s not milking his injury. You look at that as a positive because you know what he can do when he’s healthy.”

Scout 2: “Jackson is longer, leaner, with ability to bend coming off the end. Ramsey’s not the most athletic guy, but he’s tough, strong and holds the point. That’s what he’ll be in the NFL. He’ll fight you, but he won’t give you much of a pass rush.”

Scout 3: “Jackson and Rucker are good enough to dominate what UCLA brings to the table. Jackson is the better pass rusher; Rucker is the more complete player.”

* Linebacker: USC has the top prospects, but only one -- Oscar Lua -- is draft-eligible, so UCLA seniors Justin London and Spencer Havner grabbed the spotlight. That said, Trojan sophomore Keith Rivers is considered the most intriguing player for the future.

Scout 1: "[Havner and London] are good players who will probably get drafted. They’re not first-day guys.”

Scout 2: “Havner will go in the fourth or fifth. London’s a little later. Havner is an average-plus athlete who survives on his instincts and flow to the ball.”

USC’s Lua, a junior, is “smart, instinctive and tough,” and could be a middle-round pick should he decide to turn pro.

Scout 3: “London is a little more athletic but also a little smaller. He’s not a take-on guy. You’ve got to protect him and let him run to the football.”

* Cornerback: What’s surprising here is not that the scouts preferred USC’s corners -- but whom they liked best among those players.

They favored John Walker -- a fifth-year senior who became a starter after Eric Wright transferred and Terrell Thomas was injured -- over two-year starter Justin Wyatt, also a senior. Walker was hurt this season and has yet to reclaim his job opposite Wyatt from sophomore Josh Pinkard. UCLA’s Marcus Cassel, scouts said, could make an NFL team as a late-round pick or free agent.

Scout 1: “Wyatt is small but a very good football player. He’ll be drafted in one of the middle rounds. Walker is prototypical everything: size, speed, and he looks like a Greek god.

“He’s somebody who’s under the radar as far as the NFL, but a lot of scouts like him.”

Scout 2: "[Walker] is very raw and not sound technique-wise. But he’s got great upside. He’s a player that NFL teams will work and try to develop.”

Scout 3: “There’s a lineage of Pete Carroll corners. They come out of there and know how to play. Pete’s really a good secondary coach. Walker showed enough in the time he was healthy that this is a guy who has some tools.”

* Safety: Though USC got the edge with junior Darnell Bing and senior Scott Ware, the scouts also liked UCLA senior Jarrad Page, a former baseball player whom Scout 2 called “a really athletic player who’s not real sound but has a lot of upside.”

Scout 1: “Bing has everything: size, speed, instincts. ... He’s at the top of the list in college safeties.”

Scout 2: Ware is “smart and tough, and he jumps routes in front of him real well. He’s got average speed. Bing is the higher pick and the more athletic of the two.”

Scout 3: “People aren’t real high on Bing for some reason, but I like him. ... He’s an explosive hitter. He’ll come downhill and strike.

“Those guys are rare. You don’t know how many tapes I watch of safeties who don’t want to hit.”

* Kicker/punter: The scouts saw two players with strong pro potential, one from USC and the other from UCLA.

Scout 1 liked Bruin junior Justin Medlock, a left-footed placekicker. And all of the scouts liked Trojan punter Tom Malone, a senior who has been hampered by a hip injury -- and, because of USC’s prolific offense, has had few opportunities to perform.

“You look for hang time and distance, and he’s got both of them,” Scout 2 said of Malone. “But you’d also like to have a guy who can kick off, and he hasn’t done that for them.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Recent draft picks

UCLA and USC players coached by Karl Dorrell and Pete Carroll who were selected in the NFL draft:

*--* UCLA 2004 (4) Rd. Player Pos. Team Pick 3 Matt Ware DB Philadelphia 89 4 Brandon Chillar LB St. Louis 130 5 Dave Ball DE San Diego 133 5 Rodney Leisle DT New Orleans 139 2005 (4) 4 Manuel White RB Washington 120 5 Ben Emanuel DB Carolina 171 6 Tab Perry WR Cincinnati 190 6 Craig Bragg WR Green Bay 195 USC 2002 (2) Rd. Player Pos. Team Pick 3 Kris Richard DB Seattle 85 6 Chris Cash DB Detroit 175 2003 (5) 1 Carson Palmer QB Cincinnati 1 1 Troy Polamalu DB Pittsburgh 16 3 Justin Fargas RB Oakland 96 6 Kareem Kelly WR New Orleans 203 7 Malaefou MacKenzie RB Jacksonville 208 2004 (4) 1 Kenechi Udeze DE Minnesota 20 2 Jacob Rogers OT Dallas 52 2 Keary Colbert WR Carolina 62 4 Will Poole DB Miami 102 2005 (5) 1 Mike Williams WR Detroit 10 1 Mike Patterson DT Philadelphia 31 2 Shaun Cody DT Detroit 37 2 Lofa Tatupu LB Seattle 45 7 Matt Cassel QB New England 230

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