Tough season bruises Taylor Mays’ NFL draft position

The unofficial NFL draft season, and the three months of speculation that comes with it, doesn’t start in earnest until mid-January.

But for Taylor Mays, the pre-draft roller-coaster ride started 11 months ago when the two-time All-American safety made the surprising announcement that he was returning to USC for a fourth and final season.

“It’s funny,” Mays said this week. “I’ve been, what’s the word? Scrutinized.”

Picked apart might be more accurate.

The 6-foot-3, 235-pound Mays was projected as a possible top-five pick in 2009, a key player for a dominant defense who was too physically gifted for teams to pass up.

As he prepares for today’s game against Arizona, his last appearance at the Coliseum, Mays’ stock has fallen, though not precipitously.

NFL scouts cite a lack of interceptions. They question his hands, tackling and playmaking skills.

The Seattle native’s play this season has elicited criticism from media and fans, and even earned him an unnamed, and unflattering reference in the congressional record regarding late hits.

Mays, 21, is not concerned.

He has two more games to add to a resume that includes 49 starts, two more games to leave an impression, as he did with a ferocious hit in last season’s Rose Bowl victory over Penn State.

“Regardless of what’s going on, I think I will end up going higher than I would have last year,” Mays said of the April draft. “There isn’t anything on the field that I can’t do or I can’t learn how to do.”

With the NFL scouting combine in February and USC’s pro day in the spring, Mays is expected to wow scouts and general managers in tests such as the 40-yard dash, the vertical jump and the bench press.

Whether that will be enough to make up for the ground -- and money -- that Mays might have lost by coming back remains to be seen.

But Mays said he had no regrets about returning for a season that fell below USC’s usual standard.

For the first time since 2001, the Trojans are headed to a second-tier bowl game, their streak of seven consecutive Pacific 10 Conference titles ended.

Mays struggled through a knee injury that sidelined him for a September loss at Washington -- the only game he sat out in four seasons -- and he got blindsided in October when a California congressman, Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Gold River), referred to him, though not by name, as a “headhunter” during the House Judiciary Committee hearing on NFL head injuries.

Then came the Trojans’ late-season meltdowns against Oregon and Stanford, blowout losses that had media and fans alike proclaiming the end of an era.

Still, Mays said, “I know I’m a better player than I was last year.”

He is a more productive tackler. Despite lining up 10 or more yards off the ball, Mays leads the Trojans with 82 stops. That’s 29 more than last season, with two games left to play.

But with only one interception this season and five in his career, there is still the perception by some that Mays underachieved.

“He’s had a good solid year,” Coach Pete Carroll said. “He’s done everything he could.”

Mays might have done more from a playmaking standpoint had he not been limited by the defensive scheme favored by Carroll.

Unlike former Trojans safety Troy Polamalu, who lined up at various spots, Carroll deployed Mays almost exclusively as a center fielder of sorts, responsible for preventing deep passes.

“Some teams want their safeties to roam and take chances,” Carroll said. “We’re pretty secure and very disciplined about what we ask him to do.”

NFL scouts, who spoke on the condition they not be identified because they are not authorized to speak on the record, agree that Mays will be a first-round pick.

But they expect him to stay on the board a while, perhaps into the middle of the round.

“I don’t think guys ever make a mistake going back to school,” one scout said. “That being said, yes, his stock has dropped.

“He’s the prototype. The guy really looks the part, and he’s a great kid. The negatives are his lack of plays in the passing game and his ability to play in space. . . . Just not a guy who changes a game with interceptions and things like that. It’s not an experience thing, just a knack for it.”

Another scout said Mays’ stock will rise through pre-draft workouts: “He is too big and fast for teams to ignore.”

Carroll agrees that Mays will impress.

“They can talk any way they want,” he said of scouts. “Wait until they see his numbers and they see him start working out. Then they’ll go, ‘Hmm, OK. Pretty . . . good.’ ”

First, Mays wants to help the Trojans finish on a high note.

He said there will be no tears or emotion when he walks through the Coliseum tunnel in uniform for the last time.

Some goals -- a national title, winning the Thorpe Award as college football’s best defensive back -- have not been achieved. More subtle accolades have.

“Watching that guy and how he handles himself about football, going in and watching film, how he takes care of his body, is definitely stuff to pick up on,” freshman safety T.J. McDonald said. “He’s passing the torch.”

For the next phase of his career, Mays hopes to follow in the footsteps of his idols.

Former Trojans safety Ronnie Lott, a Pro Football Hall of Fame member, was the eighth pick in the 1981 NFL draft, Polamalu the 16th in 2003.

“If it doesn’t happen the way I dreamed of, well, that happens,” Mays said. “That’s when you see guys play inspired and with a chip on your shoulder, like you want to rip somebody’s head off.”

Times staff writer Sam Far- mer contributed to this report.