USC's brainy Byers leads line that ranks among nation's best

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Jeff Byers has been around a long time at USC and he's seen a lot. He started games for the 2004 team that won a second consecutive national championship. And he's seen his promising career almost end due to injuries, which killed two of his seasons.

"Old Man Byers," as some of his teammates hail the sixth-year offensive guard, will anchor perhaps the nation's best offensive line this fall as a sixth-year senior. Yet his chief reason for hanging around for so long might surprise you.

"I came back because I wanted to finish my masters' degree, first off," said Byers, who will turn 24 in September.

Let's just say that Byers has used his time at USC wisely. While many yakety yak endlessly about college athletes not getting paid, Byers has parlayed his football scholarship into a bachelor's degree in business administration and tossed in an MBA for good measure.

That would cost most folks around $350,000.

Of course, when you are a conscientious student that long, you pick up some quirks. Byers, for example, often answers questions in outline form: "A. B. C."

Such as: "Jeff, are you guys already thinking about the marquee matchup at Ohio State on Sept. 12?"

Byers: "No, because: A. We've got to get through summer workouts; B. We've got to get through camp; and, C. We've got to beat San Jose State before we can start thinking about Ohio State."

Byers is one of five returning starters from a line that: A. Gave up only 18 sacks in 2008, fewest in the Pac-10; B. Led a rushing attack that averaged 195 yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry; and, C. Is very deep considering the entire 2008 two-deep is back, and touted sophomore Tyron Smith is pushing to eclipse Butch Lewis at right tackle.

More than a handful of publications have ranked the Trojans line as the nation's best unit, not that Byers cares.

"It's hard to be called the best when you haven't played a down of football yet," he said. "It's like getting ranked No. 1 in the preseason. What does it matter? If you don't finish No. 1, it doesn't matter. It puts a target on your chest, but at the same time, you've got to remember it truly means nothing right now. Just because they say you're the No. 1 offensive line right now doesn't mean you are going to play like it."

That's sort of how Byers is. He's not flashy. He doesn't self-aggrandize. He's skeptical of hype.

Given an opportunity to join the chorus of USC fans who griped -- not without justification -- about the Trojans getting left out of the national championship discussion in 2008, Byers instead just scoffed.

"If we wanted to play for the national championship, we should have beaten Oregon State," he said. "That's the way it goes. If you lose, then you let your fate be in other people's hands. If you go 12-0, you've got a pretty good shot of getting to the national championship game. All it would it would have taken for us was beating Oregon State. Then there's no questioning. I'm not upset about it. Worrying about that is not going to help anything. It's not going to change it. It's the way the system works."

That sense of perspective probably comes from seeing just about everything in his career since he was a consensus prep All-American out of Fort Collins, Colo., in 2003: a national championship, a 34-game winning streak, major back and hip injuries, Vince Young going super-human to stop the Trojans from three-peating, a loss to 41-point underdog Stanford and five consecutive Pac-10 titles.

Things are never boring around the Trojans. It's not easy to leave that behind. So Byers applied for and earned a sixth year from the NCAA.

Said Byers, "If you've got an opportunity to keep playing in college, A. It's not going to hurt you in the NFL; and, B. Playing for one of the best teams in the country, and arguably the best coach in the country, you can't go wrong with that. The NFL is going to be there next year."

Byers is heading into a third consecutive healthy season, which should help his draft prospects. He also played at a light 285 pounds last year. Now he's just under 300, and he thinks his quickness and flexibility are better.

As for the Trojans offense, it welcomes back nine starters. The pregunta gigante, of course, is who plays quarterback: Can true freshman Matt Barkley beat out sophomore Aaron Corp, who was tapped No. 1 coming out of spring?

"Whoever plays between those two, we're going to have a great shot of winning a lot of football games," Byers said.

But Byers also echoes what just about everyone else says when assessing Barkley: He's special.

"Barkley is very mature for his age -- I forget all the time that he is only a freshman," Byers said. "We'll be sitting there wanting to give the younger guys a hard time and it's like, 'Wait a second. Barkley is with these guys!' Regardless of whether he plays this year or not, he's going to have a very bright future."

As for his future, Byers hasn't decided how he's going to use his MBA just yet. He interned at Toyota's North American headquarters doing strategic planning. There's always consulting. And investments and portfolio analysis are also intriguing.

Oh, and there's the business plan of getting a fat NFL signing bonus, not that Byers is planning to go all fleet-of-Bentleys on us.

That's not Old Man Byers' style: "I'm happy with my '98 Nissan Maxima," he said.