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USC’s Mays is taking a pro-active approach

This could be it for Taylor Mays.

USC’s Rose Bowl game against Penn State on New Year’s Day might be the junior safety’s final game for the Trojans.

Mays acknowledges it. Teammates believe he may have no choice. Even Coach Pete Carroll, describing Mays’ talent and work ethic, sounds as if he’s preparing for the consensus All-American’s early departure to the NFL.

“He’s like a pro,” Carroll says.

But will he soon become one?

It seemed like a fore-gone conclusion in August when Mays reported for training camp in the best shape of his life. A starter since the second game of his freshman season, Mays was among the most experienced players on what would become college football’s most dominant defense.

“Before the season, I wanted to leave,” he says. “Now it’s 50-50.”

Barring injury, however, it seems unlikely that Mays will return.

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This is a player who seemed destined for early entry to the pros since he arrived at USC from Seattle in the summer of 2006.

There’s the body, of course.

At 6 feet 3 and 230 pounds, Mays roams the secondary in a frame larger than his father Stafford, a former NFL defensive lineman.

Then there’s the speed.

On a USC team that includes burners such as receiver Travon Patterson and tailback Joe McKnight, Mays is the Trojans’ fastest player.

Finally, there is Carroll’s philosophy regarding the draft: If a junior is projected as the top player at his position, and is mentally prepared and wants to make the jump to the pros, he should take advantage of the opportunity.

Mays, 20, appears qualified on all counts.

An NFL scout projects him as a first-round pick and says Mays will be the first safety chosen in the April draft if he opts to turn pro.

Actually, there might be a few reasons why he might stay.

The Trojans have fallen short of the Bowl Championship Series title game in each of Mays’ three seasons. Mays also is close to graduating with a sociology degree.

And, according to Mays, there is plenty of room for improvement.

“There’s things I need to work on,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s at this level or the next level. I’ll just do what Coach Carroll tells me.”

Carroll was a Minnesota Vikings assistant in the late 1980s when Mays’ father played for the team. Carroll also restored the winning atmosphere and competitive practices at USC that attracted Mays during a campus visit in 2005. And it was Carroll who visited Mays’ home with other Trojans coaches to solidify a commitment Mays had made after also considering Michigan.

“We were eating pizza,” Mays says, chuckling at the memory. “Now three seasons have gone by and I’ve played in almost 40 games. It goes fast.”

Mays wasted no time making an impression.

As a freshman, he planted himself in the front row of the classroom during position-group meetings and hung on secondary coach Rocky Seto’s every word. He leaned on fellow safety Kevin Ellison, looking to the then-sophomore for insight and direction, especially after Josh Pinkard’s season-ending knee injury in the 2006 opener at Arkansas thrust Mays into the starting lineup.

And he lived in the film room most nights, availing himself of advice as coaches emerged from meetings.

“Everyone sees how physical he is,” Seto says, “but nobody knows how driven he is to see how good he can become.”

In an effort to improve his already imposing physical presence, Mays last spring gave up his beloved pizza and other foods that might derail his performance.

On the advice of former teammates who paid for a specialized food service while training for the NFL draft, Mays did too -- along with linebacker Brian Cushing. Since spring, three meals and three snacks have been delivered each day to their apartment.

Mays’ body fat dropped from 6% to 4%.

“I don’t want to have any regrets,” he says. “I wanted to give myself every chance I have to do this thing right.”

Mays got leaner and appeared to become meaner too, especially in the second half of the season.

At Arizona, he knocked the Wildcats’ top running back out of the game. Against California, after Ellison had suffered a knee injury a week earlier, Mays broke up several passes with spectacular bone-crunching hits, continuing to set the trend for a strong late-season run.

“I was doing the same thing I’ve always done, I just think more things broke out,” Mays says, matter-of-factly.

Carroll says there was more to it.

“When Kevin got hurt, [Mays] realized he really needed to take over and assume the leadership position,” Carroll says. “He looked different from that point. He’s played like one of the best in the country since then.”

Like other draft-eligible Trojans, Mays has petitioned the NFL for an evaluation of his projected draft position. His father and Carroll have discussed the issue and Mays and his parents will do so again after the Rose Bowl.

The deadline to declare for the April draft is Jan. 15.

“I think he’s really torn,” says Mays’ mother, Laurie.

Absolutely, his roommate says.

“He’s a guy that wants to stay,” Cushing says, “but he might have to go.”

First, however, there is a game to play against Penn State.

Mays is in no rush to make a decision and makes it clear that his coach’s opinion counts most.

“Whatever Coach Carroll says to do,” he says, “that’s what I’m going to do.”

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gary.klein@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

Decision-makers

USC has several draft-eligible players who might leave for the NFL before exhausting their eligibility. The deadline to declare for the April draft is Jan. 15. A few of the Trojans who sought draft-projection evaluations from the NFL and are pondering turning pro:

C.J. Gable, RB, So.

Gable, who redshirted in 2007, has rushed for 604 yards and eight touchdowns, but has expressed frustration with the tailback rotation.

Stafon Johnson, RB, Jr.

Leads the Trojans with 123 carries and has scored nine touchdowns. Says he is simply exploring options.

Taylor Mays, S, Jr.

Consensus All-American has been projected as a possible first-round pick. Expected to turn in off-the-charts performance at scouting combine if he comes out.

Mark Sanchez, QB, Jr.

Has passed for 30 touchdowns with 10 interceptions in his first season as starter. Expected to monitor what other draft-eligible quarterbacks decide.

Damian Williams, WR, So.

Transfer from Arkansas has a team-best 48 receptions and has scored eight touchdowns in his first season with the Trojans.


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