O’Dea High School safety Taylor Mays is out to prove it wasn’t a mistake to return to USC

100301-mays-450Taylor Mays came to the NFL scouting combine with something to prove.

Not to those who questioned his decision to return to the University of Southern California for his senior season after he was considered a lock to be a Top 15 draft choice last year. Not even to those who have been questioning his fluidity and coverage skills since his Senior Bowl performance in January.

No, the four-starter at free safety for the Trojans and a former all-state player and state sprint champion from O’Dea High School is intent on proving that he is who we thought he was – not who some no longer think he is.

“I don’t think so at all,” Mays said during his podium session at the NFL scouting combine when asked if his level of play had fallen off last season. “That never came from one of my coaches or any NFL personnel I’ve talked to.

“It only came from the media, which didn’t bother me because they don’t have an influence on how I play.”

Mays then looked the questioner in the eyes and offered, “I can get it done.”

Just ask Pete Carroll. The Seahawks’ new coach was Mays’ coach at USC. When the subject turns to Mays, Carroll becomes a one-man chamber of commerce for one player he obviously admires.

“He’s an amazing kid. He’s really an all-around great person. A terrific competitor. Everything that you would want,” Carroll began before the question had even ended. “The guy studies the game and works to improve his craft. He’s really very mature, in regard to mentoring young players. He’s a dedicated guy with ability and speed and strength and agility. He’s got a great family background. He’s a very high-class kid.

“He has all the positives that you’re looking for.”

Carroll is not alone in that glowing assessment.

“He’s got a body sculpted by God,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said of Mays, who checked in at 6 feet 3, 230 pounds during the combine.

“Have I ever seen anyone that big move that fast? Maybe when I walked by the cheetah cage at a wildfire park,” said Chris Carlisle, the long-time strength and conditioning coach at USC who now fills the same position with Seahawks.

So why is it suddenly open season on Mays, leaving him to answer questions about his decision to stay in school and also his skills?

Mays handled the one-more-year topic, after admitting that he did come close to declaring for the draft last year.

“In the end, I just got my eyes put on trying to be the best one more time, trying to learn the game a little more,” said Mays, the son of former NFL and University of Washington defensive lineman Stafford Mays.

“It wasn’t about coming out for the money or the fame. It was more about just being a finished product and being the best safety I can be.”

As for his skills, Mayock came at his assessment though the backdoor.

“He’s got size. He’s going to run well. He’s got good range. And he’s a physical kid. So when you add all that up, he’s probably a first-round pick,” he said.

Probably? Mayock then compared Mays to Tennessee’s Eric Berry and Texas’ Earl Thomas in adding, “The only issue I have with the kid is I don’t think he has the instincts that Thomas and Berry have. That’s why I don’t think he makes as many plays as those two kids do.

“Two years ago, Berry had seven interceptions. This year, Thomas had eight interceptions. I look at Taylor Mays, he’s played on one of the best defenses in the country for four consecutive years and in his career he’s only had five interceptions – and three of those were when he was a freshman. So you can talk about how you played him and why they played him and all those different things, but when you put the tape on I don’t think he’s as instinctive as the other two.”

Mays answered that by pointing out that there are plays, and then there are plays – and that with 96 tackles last season he had 43 more than as a junior; not to mention 19 and nine more than Thomas and Berry in 2009.

“I get to the ball, and I get to the ball fast – read plays quickly, and blow it up when I get there,” he said. “I get guys lined up in front of me, almost being the quarterback of the defense, and try to make plays around the field.”

Last year, however, the unit in front of Mays was missing four linebackers who were selected in last year’s NFL draft: Brian Cushing, the NFL defensive rookie of the year for the Houston Texans; Clay Matthews, who had 10 sacks for the Green Bay Packers; Ray Maualuga, who had 63 tackles in 15 starts for the Cincinnati Bengals; and Kaluka Maiava, who had 45 tackles and 2½ sacks as a part-time starter for the Cleveland Browns.

“It was a lot different,” Mays said of life without that foursome. “It was just a different team, a different defense.”

It’s a difference that also has some teams wondering if Mays’ size and style don’t make him better suited to play strong safety or even outside linebacker in the NFL.

“I’m a safety, but I’ll play wherever,” Mays said. “I can play linebacker – especially in nickel, and sometimes a safety is a linebacker just playing in the box (near the line and between the tackles). I trust that the team will hopefully draft based upon what they think I can do best.”

Not what others think he can’t do.