When a defender can institute a degree of intimidation that has the opposition shaking in their shoes before the ball is even snapped, that’s unique. When the defender’s instincts are so superior that he can anticipate a play before it occurs, that’s special. And when that same defender has the uncanny ability to deliver a punch so devastating that it not only leaves the opposition wondering where he is, but also his teammate that was covering the player who was knocked out cold, that’s rare.
This occurrence was displayed in the 2009 Rose Bowl between USC and Penn State. Late in the third quarter, Penn State wide receiver Jordan Norwood was working on the outside against USC cornerback Kevin Thomas, who was giving up a five-yard cushion. Norwood ran 10 yards up field and then slanted towards the middle. Thomas was trailing on the play the whole time, and as the ball was destined for Norwood’s hands – BOOM goes the dynamite - USC’s all-world safety Taylor Mays sent both Norwood and Thomas into another galaxy.
It’s rare to see a 6-foot-3, 230-pound safety that brings such an impressive package to the field: size, speed, strength, range and leadership. In baseball, that type of athlete would be described as a five-tool player, but in football you’re labeled as a “can’t miss” prospect. In Mays’ case, he decided to wait a year before taking his game to the next level; a move that was surprising to hear, especially since he was projected to be a top-ten pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.
"There are a lot more things I want to accomplish as a player, a student and a person, things that I've dreamed about for a long time and that are big goals to me," Mays said after his decision to return to USC. "Returning to USC will help me be the best player I can be and put me in the best position possible for the next level."
Mays is the best safety in the nation, but he may translate best at LB in the NFL.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
When a player the caliber of Mays returns to school for his senior year, it’s a calculated risk; the reason being that he’s already an accomplished player and his game is advanced enough to challenge the big boys at the next level. The risk is the fact that an injury is possible and could cost Mays millions. But an exceptional specimen like Mays can’t worry about that possibility even if he plays the game with great physicality.
Mays is a tenacious, game-changing defender who can be used in multiple ways. He’s a hard-hitting presence in the secondary and immediately recognizes the action. He takes good angles in coverage and works well with his teammates. He moves well laterally and positions himself to deliver a knockout punch. He plays aggressively against the run, sheds blocks nicely and wraps up at the point of attack bringing the ball carrier down on initial contact. He plays sideline-to-sideline and is able to cover a large area with his outstanding agility and quickness.
Even though Mays is a game changer in the physical aspect of the game, he has to develop more as a playmaker. He positions himself well to turn defense into offense and has defended 18 passes during his three-year stay at USC, but he’s amassed just four interceptions during his career.
"I feel there are some more things in my game that I can improve upon, things that would help me take the next step," Mays said.
In many circles, Mays is considered the top overall prospect [currently Scout.com’s No. 2 overall prospect] for the 2010 NFL Draft, and with his size and skills you can’t deny that distinction. However, it is unlikely that Mays becomes the No. 1 overall pick in the ’10 draft, because a safety doesn’t warrant the contract that the top pick receives. But, with Mays’ size and translating his skills to the next level, scouts and NFL executives alike have to consider moving him to linebacker - if that happens, his chance of becoming the No. 1 pick in the draft greatly intensifies.
The fact is that many teams in the NFL are switching to a 3-4 defense, which applies more pressure off the edge and has the propensity to create turnover opportunities. These traits haven’t been associated with Mays during his time at USC; Mays doesn’t have a sack to his credit and has just two tackles for a loss, but he has the ability to transform his game into an incredible linebacker with his skill set and proper coaching.
As dominant as Mays is as a safety in the collegiate ranks, the reality of the situation is that he’s a tweener, as he can play both free and strong safety. But ultimately, he should be looked at as a hybrid where he can lineup at safety or linebacker. There have been college safeties that moved to linebacker when they advanced to the NFL; Brian Urlacher (Chicago Bears) and Thomas Davis (Carolina Panthers) being two of them. Urlacher has been a perennial Pro Bowler, while Davis is still finding his niche.
It’s easy to see the versatility in Mays’ game, and the notion of him making a move to outside linebacker at the next level isn’t far fetched. If the move comes to fruition when he enters the NFL, I feel sorry for the quarterback that has to endure the aMaysing BOOM.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.