Commentary

USC's Mays takes criticism in stride

He has been called a 'freak' athlete but many still question his NFL ability as draft nears

Updated: April 1, 2010, 11:55 AM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

If, somehow, you were able to ignore the visual evidence of USC safety Taylor Mays being 6-foot-3, blazing fast and possibly one of the most impressive physical specimens ever seen on a football field, it might have seemed that Carolina Panthers secondary coach Ron Milus was talking to a scrub.

"Come on -- RUN!" Milus yelled at Mays as he went through defensive back drills for the assembled NFL coaches and scouts Wednesday afternoon at USC's pro day.

"I don't think you're R-U-N-N-I-N-G. ... I want you to run like you run the 40."

Now, before we continue, let's pause for a brief fact check:

-- Mays' 40-yard dash time is off-the-charts fast. At the NFL combine, he was clocked anywhere from a mind-boggling 4.24 seconds to a ridiculously-fast-for-a-230-pound-safety 4.43.

-- There was nothing wrong with the way Mays was doing the defensive back drills Wednesday.

-- Mays is projected as one of the top three safeties in this year's NFL draft class.

So why the harsh tone?

That's where things get tricky, political and silly. While there's rarely a player who enters the NFL draft without at least one or two things listed under the "Negatives" portion of a scouting report, there's also rarely a player with Mays' accomplished résumé (he's a three-time All-American), freakish athleticism and solid character who is projected to be picked so high but becomes a polarizing figure.

"I don't really know," Mays said. "I can't worry about it. But some of the stuff I've heard is just crazy stuff that makes it seem like I've never even played before."

[+] EnlargeTaylor Mays
Charles Baus/Icon SMITaylor Mays has been good at delivering crushing hits, but he's learning to adapt his style to what NFL scouts are looking for.

Some people absolutely love Mays and can't wait to get him into camp and mold all that wild athleticism and competitiveness into the next Sean Taylor or Ronnie Lott. Others think he's simply a workout wonder with bad hips who can't make plays.

"He's definitely a freak athlete," one scout in attendance Wednesday said. "But shouldn't a freak have more than two interceptions [in the past three seasons]?"

Mays is doing his best to shrug off the criticism, which always comes to him in whispers.

"It's been tough," he said. "But it comes with the territory. ... I'd rather have people talking about me than not have people talking about me. It's fun to be out here working out and proving people wrong.

"I guess it'll make it that much sweeter if I can be successful with what I do after all the negative stuff people say."

Mays also has found an unlikely friend with whom to commiserate and laugh about the process: Florida quarterback Tim Tebow. They've met at college football awards shows over the past few seasons, then played together at the Senior Bowl and hung out at the NFL combine.

While Mays has been taking his own ribbing fairly well, he gets decidedly more defensive when asked about Tebow.

"I don't understand it. He did everything right. It's not like everybody thought he was going to be the first quarterback taken, so I don't understand why they're killing him like that," Mays said.

"You're looking at one of the most established players in college football, ever. EVER. All these people they're talking about don't have half the credentials he does."

When asked about himself and the inordinate amount of criticism he has received, Mays was more upbeat.

"When I was recruited, they were loving me up, telling me everything in the world," he joked. "Now they're killing me.

"I guess I smile a lot, so they like to mess with me."

Was that what was happening with Milus on Wednesday?

"Yeah, I talked with him a lot at the combine; he's a great coach," Mays said of Milus. "He was just messing with me."

Mays said he has been working on his perceived flaws and trying to show scouts that whatever they think is missing from his game isn't -- namely, his ability to backpedal and change directions, his ability to intercept passes and create turnovers instead of just big hits, and his footwork dropping back in coverage.

"I think it's awareness for the ball instead of going for the hit," Mays said. "In the NFL, turnovers are a big deal. Interceptions are a huge deal, more than a big hit. That's what the best safeties do in the NFL and that's what I've got to do to be a safety in the NFL.

"I just need to add that to my game. I know I can do it; I just wasn't really coached to do that at USC but know I can make that transition."

As many question marks as there seem to be about Mays -- self-identified, and in whispers along the sidelines -- more than a few people at USC on Wednesday gave an alternate explanation.

For instance, everyone who is making an obvious effort to "mess with" Mays is actually enamored with him and trying to disguise their affection.

As one NFL coach told me, "We could have him No. 1 on our draft board right now, but the last thing I'd do is tell anyone."

Another scout, whose team has a top-15 pick, said, "Taylor is a great kid and a great player. I don't believe anything anyone says [this time of year]."

If that's true for even half the naysayers, Mays has little to worry about come draft day.

"It doesn't surprise me," Mays said of the criticism. "They pick you. They're not trying to convince me of anything. It's the NFL. It's serious and it's a business. It's not really fun and games anymore. I know that. My dad played, he knows what's up, so I don't really worry about it."

Matt Barkley, USC's freshman quarterback, said he doesn't know exactly what scouts look for in an NFL safety, but he knows what he saw across the field every day in practice this past season.

"It's weird because it doesn't look like he's moving that fast, but he'll just scream to the ball and either knock the receiver out or pick it off," Barkley said. "It's deceiving how quickly he closes. I always had to know where he was when he was back there."

Why is he being given such a hard time by NFL scouts?

"I think his numbers are just too hard to believe," Barkley said. "How he can be so big and run so fast and be so physical. But I don't see any reasons not to like him.

"Going up against that every day prepared me better than anything I would face in the game."

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.