LOS ANGELES -- It's not often his family can drive three hours to watch Nick Perry play, so about 20 relatives -- his parents, his seven brothers and one sister, his assorted cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces -- headed south on I-75 out of Detroit, made a sharp right just past Toledo and pulled into South Bend, Ind.
Decked out in cardinal and gold, cheering wildly, they saw USC's best road win of the past two seasons, a 31-17 victory at Notre Dame three Saturdays ago. It wasn't long after the game that Perry started hearing the question that now makes him wince, especially when it's coming from family members.
Will he stay or will he go?
The question is more fraught for Perry, a junior defensive end with the elite athletic ability NFL teams crave, than it is for USC's other draft-eligible underclassmen. Matt Kalil and T.J. McDonald come from NFL families. Matt Barkley's father, Les, is a successful Newport Beach businessman.
Perry is from West Detroit, a struggling part of a struggling metropolis. The city ran into a budget shortfall and had to shut down Perry's high school, Mackenzie, after his junior year, so he transferred to Martin Luther King High and helped lead it to its first state title. He set a Michigan state record with 36 sacks.
When Perry figures out his next career move, he'll have plenty of interested observers.
"When you have family members who are struggling, probably not living in the best homes or the most comfort, Nick will see that and think, 'I can go ahead and go and get all these things for my family,' " Perry's brother, Noel, said. "I think that weighs on a kid's judgment. We want him to make the best choice for himself. I think it will be hard."
Perry is listed most places as a second-round draft pick if he declares for next spring's draft, but he's the kind of player who could rocket up the board after the NFL combine in February. USC coach Lane Kiffin said last year that Perry, who is a chiseled 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, is among the fastest players on the team. His 40 time beat out several of the scholarship tailbacks and receivers.
"There are probably 10 to 15 people like him in the world," Kiffin said.
But those measurements mean less to USC than the number 5. That's how many sacks Perry has recorded this season, which leads the team but sets him up to fall well short of his personal goal of 15, his prediction last spring. USC has only three games remaining and Perry admits he "messed up" when he publically stated his goal.
"He's playing pretty good, but not at a level we want him to," defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron said. "He knows that. You can't measure just on sacks, because he's had a couple he just missed. He's rushing well, but we expect a little more.
"He's one of the fastest, more-explosive ends we've had. That doesn't always translate to sacks. Omar Nazel ran a 5-flat, but he had some intangibles about himself that enabled him to get to the passer. Kenechi Udeze had 16-and-a-half sacks. Those are the high standards we have here."
Orgeron says he thinks it would be folly for Perry to leave before his senior season, before he's clearly established himself as one of the top few defensive ends in the nation.
"I do believe he needs to stay another year," Orgeron said.
Perry says he tries not to think about it, though he does sometimes talk to his friend, Kalil, about their looming decision.
For Perry to have made it this far has bucked the odds. The Pac-12 hasn't exactly mined loads of talent from Detroit's cash-strapped public schools. Those schools have produced plenty of Hall of Fame-caliber athletes, including the NBA's George Gervin and ex-NFL running back Jerome Bettis, but other standout players fall victim to the streets, to a decaying school system or to the negative forces haunting those neighborhoods.
Perry says he has witnessed shootings, has known plenty of gang members. On the block that Perry's father, Joel, has owned a house for more than 30 years, just two houses are inhabited. The Cadillac dealership moved out years ago, replaced by a drug store.
But it's also the focal point for a close-knit, but sprawling family. The house is on a dead end and there is a church at the end of the street. Joel Perry made his boys mow the 50-by-100-foot lot by the time they were 6 or 7 years old, using a push mower. Maybe that's how Nick got so big.
"You had to have a lot of endurance and leg strength to push that old mower," Noel Perry said.
When he bought Pete Carroll's recruiting pitch and decided coming west to USC, it caught many of his family members by surprise. He was a standout basketball player in high school and his father was hoping he would play that sport at Michigan.
"I hadn't even heard of USC until he talked about it," Joel Perry said. "I said, 'What the heck. Well, go West young man.' " Now, Perry tries to represent Detroit in a positive light to his teammates.
Nick Perry tries to represent Detroit in the best light to his teammates.
"They call me Motown," he said. "They know I'm from Detroit and they know I'm a tough guy that's ready to play every down."
A few years ago, USC defensive end Lawrence Jackson cited a disappointing junior year for his decision to return to USC in 2008. That class turned into an avalanche of returning seniors. Brian Cushing, Rey Maualuga and Fili Moala all stuck around for their senior seasons, giving USC one of the most dominant defenses college football has seen in decades.
If Barkley, Kalil and McDonald all return next year, it might make it harder for Perry to go. Then again, the USC family isn't the only one he'll answer to.
Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com.