Making the best of it

LOS ANGELES -- College football is full of cautionary tales about blue-chip prep phenoms falling by the wayside, unwilling to put in the time and effort to make it. Stories abound about five-star "sure things" who couldn't stand going from being the big man on campus in high school to the bottom of the totem pole at the next level.

Starting USC nose tackle Antwaun Woods, one of the Trojans' most productive young talents this season, could have easily gone that route a year ago.

He arrived at USC just before the 2011 campaign hardly resembling the player that he is today. Standing 6-foot-1 and a whopping 335 pounds, Woods simply didn't have the physical stamina or quickness to even sniff the field as a true freshman.

Sure, it had worked at the high school level. A highly coveted national prospect at Woodland Hills (Calif.) Taft High School, Woods was able to dominate his opponents based on sheer size and raw ability, without any of the offseason hard work.

It was a much different story once he hit the practice field at USC.

"In high school, once you become one of the big-name guys, it's natural to become lazy, especially for a big man," Woods said. "(The coaches) didn't have to tell me. After the first practice I knew that I was out of shape and overweight."

But in a unique sign of maturity, Woods took ownership of his deficiencies, deciding to act on them rather than make excuses.

"I just wasn't ready," he said. "I knew I had to change. I knew I had to become a different player. It's all in your mind, so I just kept telling myself, 'I've got to get it right. I've got to get better.' "

With his mindset pointed in the right direction, Woods set about making the most of a redshirt season that would keep him on the sideline.

His first course of action was to lose the extra weight that was bogging him down on the field.

"It was just coming in every morning before workouts," Woods said of his regimen. "I was just doing cardio on the treadmill, sweating and burning calories. And then during the workouts I would burn even more. It was hard, and I was kind of inconsistent in the beginning, but then I just got it together and made it happen."

There were definite signs of improvement last spring, and by the time fall camp opened up this past August, Woods had transformed his body dramatically. Dropping all the way down to 295 pounds, he was noticeably faster on his feet, and it wasn't long before he emerged from an open competition at the nose tackle position at the top of the depth chart.

And at the moment, it's safe to say that Woods is enjoying the fruits of his labor. Having established himself as the anchor in the middle of a defensive line group that has been the story of the fall, he's drawn comparisons to former Trojans' All-American Mike Patterson, another standout nose tackle with a similar physical build and style of play.

"I saw some film on him and I saw that he was really good, so I was like, 'I kind of want to be like him,' " said Woods. "So each day I'm working on the little things to follow in his footsteps."

With six tackles and a half a sack so far, Woods doesn't necessarily have the numbers that Patterson put up at USC, but that isn't the job of the nose tackle in the current Trojans defense.

It doesn't matter to Woods though, as statistics aren't nearly as important to him as helping the team by doing his job within the framework of the game plan.

"My role is basically to stop the run on first and second down, and to just stay in my A-gap and to keep the line off the linebackers," Woods said. "We've got these great pass-rushers next to me, but my role is to stop the run."

It's that selfless attitude combined with his stout play that has made Woods such a valuable asset to the Trojans in 2012. And with his freshman season at USC serving as a constant source of motivation, he's determined to keep it that way.

"Nothing is guaranteed," Woods said. "I was redshirted and I came from the bottom. I've come a long way."