Free safety Taylor Mays fastest of the fast at USC

Updated: December 4, 2008, 2:48 PM ET
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES -- Speed's the thing on coach Pete Carroll's teams at Southern California, just as it is with most of college football's elite programs these days.

USC's fastest player would figure to be a tailback like Joe McKnight, a wide receiver like Ronald Johnson, or a cornerback like Cary Harris.

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

It's free safety Taylor Mays, whose combination of speed, size and athleticism make him one of the country's best at his position and a top NFL prospect.

"He's the biggest, strongest, fastest guy that you're going to find," Carroll said. "His numbers are enormous, but what makes him who he is, he's really a diligent competitor. He applies himself in every way that he knows. He eats right, sleeps right, takes care of himself, does his schoolwork, does everything. He studies the game of football as much as any pro studies the game of football day-to-day during the course of a game week.

"He's a vicious hitter as well. When you run that fast and you weigh 230-something pounds -- he's over 230 -- and you're a willing hitter, you're going to bring it. And he does that."

Carroll said Mays has the best 40-yard dash time on the team, but declined to elaborate.

"Don't even want to say it -- you won't believe me when I tell you," he said.

The 6-foot-3 Mays, a junior who became a starter in the second game of his freshman year, said he was timed at 4.25 seconds as a freshman and again last spring.

"I need to work side-to-side, though," he added.

Asked if he was the fastest Trojan, Mays smiled and replied: "I just run, try to make plays. RoJo (Johnson) thinks he's the fastest. I killed him in a race."

The speedy McKnight makes no such claim.

"He's faster than me," McKnight said of Mays. "I wish I had it, whatever he has."

Mays was a 3A state champion in the 100- and 200-meters in his sophomore and junior years at O'Dea High in Seattle. He didn't run track as a senior, instead preparing himself for his college football career.

Asked separately about Mays, USC linebacker Kaluka Maiava and guard Jeff Byers both used the same word: freak.

"He's all over the field. It's reassuring knowing he's back there and he can cover us up top," Maiava said.

"He's just an unreal athlete, the things he can do," Byers said. "I don't think there are many people in the world who can do what he does -- he's just so big, fast, athletic."

Mays, who turns 21 in February, has 34 tackles and 14 assists and has broken up a team-leading seven passes. He doesn't have an interception, but Carroll thinks there's a reason for that.

"There's a lot that goes on in his position that you don't see that he deserves credit for," the coach said. "If you think about the last two seasons or the last three seasons, how many times somebody's taken the ball, thrown it over our heads down the middle of the field, you can't remember because it hasn't happened.

"He's been incredible at giving us consistent play on the deep end. It goes quietly in some regards, but people don't even try. And he knows, too, he's still learning, he's still growing as a player. I can't imagine anybody playing better middle safety, deep safety than he is anywhere in the country."

Mays said he's modeled his game after the late Sean Taylor, who starred at the University of Miami and with the Washington Redskins before being shot to death by an intruder at his home a year ago.

"He's been my favorite player," Mays said. "I look up to (former USC safety) Ronnie Lott, too. That's what's special being in this program, living up to the safeties here."

It's possible Mays will be playing in the next-to-last game of his college career Saturday when No. 5 USC (10-1, 7-1 Pac-10) faces crosstown rival UCLA (4-7, 3-5). A victory over the Bruins would mean a conference championship and Rose Bowl berth for the Trojans.

Should Mays decide to bypass his senior year, he'll likely be an early draft pick. He said he hasn't made a decision, but unlike most players in his situation, he admits to "thinking about it all the time."

"I talk to Coach Carroll about it," he said. "Me and my family have a lot of trust in Coach Carroll. I'll do what Coach Carroll wants me to do. He knows I want to be the best player I can be."

Mays thinks his size and speed will give him several options at the next level, saying he could play cornerback, safety or outside linebacker.

USC wide receiver Patrick Turner believes his teammate is playing the ideal position right now.

"A prototypical free safety, the type of safety everyone's looking for these days," Turner said.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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