Binoculars are at the ready.
When USC plays host to UCLA on Saturday, pro scouts will be eyeing the game as another opportunity to evaluate which players are suited for Sundays. Representatives of four NFL teams — Tampa Bay, Carolina, Philadelphia and Chicago — will be in the Coliseum press box to watch this year’s grudge match, but scouts have been cycling through all season.
Representatives of 15 teams were credentialed for USC’s Thursday night game against Washington in October — among them John Elway, top football executive for the Denver Broncos — and scouts from eight NFL teams were on hand for a game against Utah two weeks later. The turnout is similar for UCLA’s games at the Rose Bowl.
There were three UCLA players selected in the 2015 draft, and six USC players, including first-rounders Leonard Williams and Nelson Agholor.
This year’s matchup of Bruins and Trojans isn’t overflowing with pro prospects, but features some intriguing ones. And, as it has each year since 2005, the Los Angeles Times asked scouts from three NFL teams to open their confidential notebooks and share their opinions about which players are the most promising.
The scouts are not identified because they are disclosing internal information. They are focused on draft-eligible players, as the league does not want evaluators breaking down the pros and cons of underclassmen.
What’s more, this is merely the first piece of the puzzle. A player’s draft stock typically fluctuates depending on his performance in a bowl game, the Senior Bowl, the scouting combine, campus pro days and the like. This is a snapshot in time.
We primarily looked at the top five prospects from each school. For UCLA, it was linebacker Myles Jack, defensive lineman Kenny Clark, receiver Jordan Payton, center Jake Brendel and kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn.
For USC, it was linebacker Su’a Cravens, quarterback Cody Kessler, center Max Tuerk, running back Tre Madden and defensive tackle Antwaun Woods.
The local player that interests scouts most won’t be in the game. Jack, who dropped out of school after suffering a torn knee meniscus in September, is considered a first-round pick by all three scouts. He dabbled with double-duty as a running back at UCLA, but he’s seen as a pure linebacker in the pros.
“He’s a little undisciplined at times, but you love his passion,” Scout 1 said. “He can rush the passer, he can cover. He’s a good blitzer and has big-time speed.”
Scout 2 said there are some concerns about Jack’s maturity and his decision to drop out of school, saying, “It’s a little bit of a selfish act what he did, because it became about him and the NFL, not so much UCLA, go to the Rose Bowl, play for a championship. It became about Myles.”
Scout 3 countered, “I don’t think it’s that big a deal. It would be more if he were in trouble or had a bunch of issues. This guy is just a football player. When he got hurt he said, ‘I’m done. I know what my next step’s going to be,’ and he decided to shut it down and focus on it.”
Round projections on USC’s Cravens, a draft-eligible junior, varied from the first to the third. Scout 1 called him a tweener, a college outside linebacker who will be more of a strong safety in the pros. “His top-end speed is a question, so it will be interesting to see how he runs in the spring,” Scout 2 said.
Scout 3 called him “the heartbeat of the Southern Cal defense,” and added, “When he’s on and making plays, their defense is totally different.”
The scouts see Kessler as a good college quarterback who projects as a backup in the pros, a player likely to be selected in rounds four through six.
“He’s a decent athlete on the move, tough kid, good vision, throws a catchable ball,” Scout 1 said. “He’s just not your ideal, prototypical pocket passer because he’s not very big and doesn’t have the big arm.”
Scout 2 said he’d like to see Kessler go through his progressions quicker. “He can find the first guy and hit him accurately, but it’s going through the rest of the progression where he has some issues.”
The evaluators like what they see in UCLA’s Clark, a 6-foot-3, 310-pound junior who has five sacks this season. “He’s a guy who physically could play in the NFL right now, but he has to work on a lot of things and clean up his game,” Scout 2 said.
Scout 3 said he projects Clark as a second-round talent who potentially could sneak into the late first: “This guy is a physical pass rusher. More of a brute than an edge player. This guy can get into a battle with a guard, push him back, and press the pocket.”
Bruins receiver Jordan Payton is as reliable as they come, with the school record for career receptions (194 and counting) and catches in 27 consecutive games. The scouts praised his strong hands and ability to go up and pull down the ball in a crowd. They see him as a fourth- or fifth-round pick.
“He kind of grows on you the more you watch because he makes the tough, contested catch,” Scout 1 said. Scout 3 said Payton “will do some of the dirty-work stuff for you in traffic.”
USC’s Tuerk suffered a season-ending knee injury early in the fall, but scouts are interested in what he can do at the next level. “He’ll be a pretty good center if he can put on some weight and sustain it,” Scout 2 said. “You want a guy who can move his feet, is aware, can handle the line calls and communicate them. He can do all of those things.” That scout said Tuerk could be a mid-round pick.
UCLA center Brendel is a prospect, too, although these scouts see him as more of a late-round pick or free agent. “He’s smart, instinctive, and has some quickness, but he lacks power,” Scout 1 said. “He struggles to finish his blocks.” Scout 3 called him “steady and dependable.”
The running back that most interests these scouts is USC’s Madden, the grandson of former Los Angeles Rams star Lawrence McCutcheon. The scouts see Madden as draftable, perhaps in the fifth or sixth round.
“He’s got size, good vision, runs hard, one-cut quicks,” Scout 1 said. “He’s got pretty good hands. He just lacks top speed and burst. He’s not a real explosive guy. He’s got some durability issues.”
On the other side of the ball for the Trojans is Woods, a solid run-stopper. At 6-1, 320 pounds, he “can take up space and take on blocks,” Scout 1 said. “He’s strong, but he’s limited in range and athleticism.” All three scouts said he’s most likely to be a free agent.
Not many kickers are drafted, but all three of the scouts like UCLA’s Fairbairn, who made a school-record 60-yard kick against California and has scored at least 100 points in all four seasons.
Scout 1 said he could see Fairbairn going in the fifth through seventh rounds.
Among the other USC players the scouts say could wind up in NFL training camps, and potentially could make rosters, are 6-9, 360-pound tackle Zach Banner, a fourth-year junior (“He’s big and has got all the tools, but it’s going to take some time.”); defensive tackle Delvon Simmons (“He’s got size but needs suddenness rushing the passer. More of a blue-collar guy.”); defensive end Greg Townsend Jr. (“He needs to work on his strength.”); and linebacker Anthony Sarao (“He has a chance as a special-teams player and energy bringer.”).