Justice, pair of guards impress scouts

After a drought in recent years, the Trojans are on the verge of continuing their tradition of producing top OL prospects.

Originally Published: April 5, 2006
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- Since 1970, Southern California has supplied 17 first-round offensive linemen to the NFL draft. But the Trojans haven't had a first-round blocker since 1996 and none of note since 1995, when the Jacksonville Jaguars plucked left tackle Tony Boselli with the second overall selection.

But this is the year the unusual drought ends for the Trojans. And the year in which the proud tradition of producing quality offensive linemen -- guys such as Pro Football Hall of Fame member Anthony Munoz, Bruce Matthews, Keith Van Horne, Marvin Powell, Ken Ruettgers and Don Mosebar -- is revisited.

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In behemoth offensive tackle Winston Justice, clearly the prospect whose draft stock was most enhanced by Sunday afternoon's pro day workouts, the Trojans will have their first top-round offensive line pick since Green Bay selected John Michels in 1996. Girthy guard Taitusi Lutui could squeeze into the bottom of the first round but, more realistically, is probably a second-rounder. And his running mate at guard, Fred Matua, might have moved himself into first-day consideration with a terrific pro day performance.

"There's a lot of pride among the [linemen] here," said Lutui, who at 6-foot-3½ and 330 pounds certainly fits the profile of what NFL teams are seeking in their interior linemen now. "There's a lot of history, we all know, too. With all the great [skill-position] players we have here, the linemen sometimes get lost in the shuffle, but we feel we're a big part of this program's success, too."

With the emphasis on big, for sure.

No one had a bigger or more impressive workout Sunday than Justice, who still must resolve some character issues with scouts, but might have catapulted himself into top-10 status with a tremendous overall performance. He checked in at 6-6¼ and 320 pounds, carried his weight well, and performed admirably in every drill. In the vertical jump, Justice did 39 inches, an incredible mark for such a big man. He registered 38 repetitions in the bench press. Justice pulled up toward the end of the 40-yard drill, clutching his right hamstring, but one AFC scout still said he clocked him in 5.03 seconds. The consensus was that Justice was in the 5.1s and would have run in the 4.9s were it not for the hamstring injury.

In the pass-block drills, Justice, who has the kind of wingspan scouts love (34½ inches) in pass protectors, looked very agile and naturally athletic, despite the sore hamstring.

"Some of the stuff he did was absolutely off the charts for a man so big," Carolina Panthers coach John Fox said. "You don't see those kinds of workout numbers from a 320-pounder. He definitely helped himself."

Fox noted that there are teams that actually like Justice a little better than they do D'Brickashaw Ferguson of Virginia, the consensus No. 1 tackle in the draft pool. After the Sunday workout, in which Justice looked both athletic and explosive, there is a lot to like.

Teams will certainly conduct their due diligence into a pair of incidents that drew sanctions for Justice, one of which included his allegedly pointing a pellet gun at a student. But a few general managers on Sunday pointed out that Justice, rather than leave school and go into last year's draft, took the steps necessary to regain his eligibility and a spot on the 2005 Trojans roster, and had no recent off-field issues.

Said Justice: "That stuff is all behind me. I'm just looking forward now."

There's a lot of pride among the [linemen] here. There's a lot of history, we all know, too. With all the great [skill-position] players we have here, the linemen sometimes get lost in the shuffle, but we feel we're a big part of this program's success, too.
G Taitusi Lutui
It should be noted that another USC blocker of sorts, underrated fullback David Kirtman, whose selfless approach was cited by coach Pete Carroll in his opening remarks to scouts, raised his stock with a very solid audition. But the scouts really came away impressed by the Trojans' linemen.

Lutui looks like a prototype NFL guard, thick and naturally powerful. His 40-yard time, in the mid-5.3s, was not dazzling, but Lutui is more athletic than people think, although he will be best suited in a power-blocking scheme.

The lesser-celebrated Matua was 301 pounds on Sunday, but performed as many reps on the bench press as Lutui (26) and ran considerably faster (5.06) in the 40. A gritty in-line blocker, Matua was regarded as a middle-round choice by most scouts. But his pro day audition was so good, he may have moved himself into first-day consideration.

No matter where they are selected, the three blockers definitely will all be chosen, and will represent the largest class of USC linemen to be drafted since 1983. Led by Matthews, the Trojans had three linemen in that draft as well, when the lottery consisted of 12 rounds.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.