USC junior linebacker Su'a Cravens says his recent decision to forgo his final season of eligibility and enter the NFL draft wasn’t as easy to reach as some might imagine. After all, with a tattoo of the Coliseum on his arm serving as proof, he considers himself a Trojan through and through. Add in Clay Helton’s hiring as USC’s permanent head coach, a talented group of underclassmen set to return next season, and a loaded 2016 schedule on tap, and there were more than just a few factors drawing him back to the Trojans.
But in the end, the opportunity to fulfill his childhood dream of playing in the NFL was just too much to pass up. It was a choice that was aided not only by the support of his family and friends, but also Helton.
“I came to talk to Helton probably a week before, and I asked him for advice on what he thought I should do,” Cravens said. “He said, ‘You’re leaving, and I’m not going to let you stay. I’ll pack your bags for you.’ And I also heard that from about four other coaches on the team.”
The backing Cravens received from Helton and the rest of the USC coaching staff -- although somewhat surprising -- was certainly well-deserved. A three-year starter who earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors in each of the past two seasons, Cravens is currently tied for the team lead in tackles (78), sacks (5.5) and forced fumbles (2) in 2015, and he leads the Trojans defense outright in tackles for loss (14.5).
What’s even more impressive is that he’s managed to perform at that same sky-high level throughout his time at USC despite going through four head-coaching changes, as well as being asked to switch from his natural safety spot to outside linebacker following his freshman campaign.
Rather than pointing to the adversity he faced as a negative, however, Cravens believes it all helped shape him into the player he is today.
“I didn’t come to USC for a specific coach, I just came to be great,” said Cravens, who has compiled 198 tackles, 10.5 sacks and nine interceptions in his career. “And I think with the five different coaches we had, along with the hundred other positions I played -- that helped the process. I think it helped me out in the long run.”
Cravens has a point. It’s his versatility, combined with his lights-out instincts and physical tools, that could propel him into the first round of April’s NFL draft.
As to what position he will play on the next level, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Cravens says that is still up in the air, and it’s something he isn’t too concerned with in any case.
“I’m hearing either strong safety or weakside linebacker,” Cravens said. “At the end of the day I don’t control who picks me and what position they want to play me at, but whoever picks me is going to be getting a player who gives it their all and gives a great effort.”
But that’s for the future. With USC set to take on Wisconsin in the National Funding Holiday Bowl on Wednesday, Cravens is focused solely on the immediate task at hand: gearing up for a Badgers offensive attack he likened to that of Stanford’s earlier this week.
“Everybody is getting ready for a physical game,” Cravens said. “If we don’t come out strong, and if we don’t come out fast, then they’re going to march down our throat and take about seven minutes off the clock.”
The game has the added bonus for Cravens of taking place in San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, which is less than an hour drive from where he first made a name for himself at Vista Murrieta High School. There have been plenty of ticket requests this week, and he expects a big collection of family and friends to be on hand.
It figures to serve as an ideal setting for his final game in a Trojans uniform, but he’s been careful not to get too caught up in that fact in the days leading up to the contest.
“I can’t get emotional about it,” Cravens said. “I came to SC to play ball, and it’s my last game, but I’m going to play it like I do every other game and be mentally prepared.”
Still, when the game is over and it’s all said and done, it’s safe to say Cravens is well aware of what he’s leaving behind at USC, and that he’s thankful for every second he got to be a part of it.
“I think the whole SC family knows how I feel about them, and how I feel about being a Trojan,” Cravens said. “It’s in my blood. I have it tatted all over my body. And no matter what happens after this, and no matter how far along I play in my career, I’ll always be a Trojan.”