For most of his career at USC, safety Taylor Mays was known for his freakish combination of linebacker size and cornerback speed, which made him a fixture in the Trojan secondary almost from day one in 2006. Over the last couple years, though, his name has increasingly brought to mind, well, opposing receivers getting knocked out of theirs:
By the end of last year, Mays’ reputation for the kill shot had so overwhelmed the rest of his game that he was cited on the floor of Congress as "a headhunter" during a Judiciary Committee hearing on preventing concussions in October. After passing up a chance to be a top-10 or even top-five pick after his junior season, his stock started to fall as USC’s defense tried to stave off total collapse over the second half of the season, and plummeted after a meh showing at the Senior Bowl, when questions about his agility, change of direction, hands, tackling and ability to do anything else that doesn’t involve tracking and decapitating receivers threatened to drop him into the second round (though he did end the week with a pick in the game itself). As it stands, he seems bound for the late first round, 10-15 spots and a million dollars or two below what he likely would have earned a year ago.
Speaking to a San Diego radio station earlier this week, Mays said he disputed his descent on media draft boards on two counts: a) Doubts about his coverage skills only exist because of his size ("I think I’m able to move and I’m not supposed to be able to move at this size"), and b) When it came to hunting heads over the middle, he was just doing his job (emphasis added):
"I think there is some truth to [his reputation for going for too many big hits] but at the same time that is what I was coached to do. At USC, I was coached to deliver knockout shots. I have the potential athletically and mentally to catch the ball and go after the ball. In one week (at the Senior Bowl) I was able to go from only hitting receivers to going after the ball. I just want a chance to work with coach who can help me do that."
That’s an interesting line from a player off a defense once ruled by the mantra, "It’s all about the ball." Then again, there was much less made of former coach Pete Carroll’s obsession with forcing turnovers over the last four years, when takeaways by the Trojan D were significantly down from the numbers that ranked among the top 10 nationally in each of Carroll’s first six seasons. (Those defenses, coincidentally, were also led by hard-hitting All-Americans at safety, Troy Polamalu in 2001-02 and Darnell Bing from 2003-05.) If he’s describing his role accurately, it seems entirely possible that Mays’ lack of production on paper — only one interception over the last two years, and only one credited forced fumble for his career — stemmed from a decreased emphasis on taking the ball away in the later Carroll years. Or, it could be simply that he really, really likes knocking people out, and opposing offenses weren’t very inclined to give him the opportunity to do either.
For his part, Mays also insists that he has never considered nor heard a coach suggest a move to linebacker, and that the focus on his supposed problems in coverage only exists in the media: "I just know that what I hear from a consensus especially recently from analysts is different than what I am hearing from NFL head coaches and GM’s and DB coaches. … There are these ideas and thoughts out there that I can’t move well for my size or that I can’t backpedal. It’s just completely different than what I hear when I meet with coaches. They tell me that they like how I move and that I move well." At least the Song Girls like the way you move, Taylor, which is really all that counts.