LOS ANGELES -- With the 2012 NFL draft now complete, it's natural to look head to the possibilities for 2013.
The USC Trojans had three players selected this year -- the lowest total from USC in 10 years -- but the next draft class certainly will produce more lofty results.
For starters, the Trojans could have three players picked in the first round alone as Matt Barkley (QB), Khaled Holmes (center) and T.J. McDonald (safety) are all ranked as the top seniors returning at their positions, according to ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. There's also a chance talented defensive ends Wes Horton and Devon Kennard could join that first-round group, or even a draft-eligible junior such as wide receiver Robert Woods.
Barkley is definitely the name that will lead the way on most early mock drafts. He has the resume pro scouts are looking for with the on-field production, leadership, football savvy and a spotlight that will shine brightly on everything he does this fall.
As the early favorite for the top draft spot, Barkley will no doubt get a fair share of scrutiny as well. There will be those who nitpick about his size not being ideal or find some other flaw to focus on. That's all part of the game. But the reality is that Barkley would have been a first-round draft choice this year for a reason, because his game is perfectly suited for the NFL. If he continues to advance as a quarterback this season, there's no reason to think he won't be a very high draft pick next April.
Holmes and McDonald are in similar positions as veteran players who have seen a lot of action at USC. Both have football bloodlines, as Holmes' father played at Michigan and his brother at USC. McDonald's father played at USC, and his brother is currently at UCLA.
There's little doubt that both Holmes and McDonald head into the season as highly touted players, but a big key for both players and their draft status is their respective positions. There were only two safeties chosen in the first round of the draft this year and no centers. That news is a little better for McDonald as his chances are increased to get into the first round depending on the needs of a team. For Holmes, even if he plays well, those team needs could dictate his ability to move up, as most teams just don't value centers as a first-round need.
One position that is definitely valued as being worthy of a first-round selection is a defensive end, or designated pass rusher. Six of those players went in the first round this year, and that is good news for Horton and Kennard. While it's doubtful that either player will show up on early first-round projections, Nick Perry wasn't projected as a first-round pick at this time last year either. It's certainly possible that both Horton and Kennard to push double-digit sacks this season, and that kind of production would open up the eyes of the scouts. It also helps to see the success of so many USC defensive linemen in the NFL recently, as it gives the scouts an increased comfort level on future players from the school.
The case of Woods will be an interesting one. He has the talent to be a high-draft choice if he comes out, but a lot can happen between now and January, when Woods would have to make such a decision. In fact, he already has said he saw the example that Barkley and McDonald set by coming back and he admired their actions. As good as those words sound, USC fans know that the situation can always change. It's not that Woods isn't being honest -- it's just that a lot can change between now and the end of the season.
A pair of cornerbacks could end up receiving some early- to mid-round consideration. Isiah Wiley has the size and coverage skills to get a long look, while Nickell Robey might have a choice to make as a draft-eligible junior. The first look at Robey's size (5-foot-8, 165 pounds) probably will cause most teams to flinch, but he heard the same comments when he came out of high school. His lack of size hasn't stopped him from being one of the Trojans' key players, as Robey is just a pure athlete who competes as hard as anybody on the field.
In terms of other potential draft choices, there are plenty of other seniors who could end up getting picked or, at the very least, signed as a free agent. Curtis McNeal is already a 1,000-yard rusher, and the NFL has shown that it isn't afraid of using short, tough running backs -- which McNeal certainly is. Jawanza Starling will have been a multi-year starter, and guys like Drew McAllister, Brian Baucham and Tony Burnett got a lot of playing time as well. There's also a good chance that punter Kyle Negrete will get a shot.
The situation is not as clear with senior offensive lineman Abe Markowitz, who missed two years with a foot injury and might apply for a sixth year of college eligibility. If that doesn't happen, Markowitz is a versatile interior lineman who could attract some free agent interest.
There are other players who will have been at USC for three years and technically could enter the draft, although there isn't much talk about that possibility yet. Among the players on that list are linebackers Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey, tight ends Xavier Grimble, Randall Telfer and Christian Thomas, defensive tackle George Uko, and safety Demetrius Wright.