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Second options emerge as hot prospects

4/14/2004

Just three classes shy of the sheepskin he covets so much, Keary Colbert ought to just go ahead and petition the dean right now for his degree in sociology, since his football career at Southern California already fully demonstrates his understanding of human phenomena and the manner in which communities evolve.

If you can collect college credits for life experiences, Colbert should readily qualify, since his successful tenure with the Trojans reflects the resume of a guy who always seemed to know and accept his place in the pecking order. Need a complementary wide receiver, an accomplished pass-catcher who could alleviate some of the pressure from standouts like Kareem Kelly and Mike Williams, and who could put up numbers in his own right?

Chances are, then, that Colbert is your man. How else to explain that, in four years, Colbert never once led USC in single-season receptions, but will exit Southern California as the all-time career leader at one of the nation's most notable football powers?

"You know, I never thought of myself as being second best at anything, but I was always willing to do whatever they needed me to do," said Colbert earlier this week. "To me, I was the starting 'Z' receiver. Mike was the starter at the 'X' spot. And before him, the 'X' guy was Kareem. The way I saw it was, they did their job, and I did mine. And if we all played well, heck, we'd succeed as a team. All I wanted to do was fit in somewhere and contribute to the program."

An efficient and workmanlike wide receiver, a player who operated in the shadows while some of his higher-profile colleagues commanded the spotlight, Colbert certainly fulfilled his self-styled job description. Fulfilled it so well, in fact, that his name ranks above those of former USC wideouts like Lynn Swann, Curtis Conway and Keyshawn Johnson in the hallowed litany of great Trojans wideouts.

His final tally includes 207 receptions, 2,964 yards and 19 touchdowns. His receiving yards are the third-most at USC and eighth-most in Pac 10 history and he is one of only a handful of players in conference annals to register consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. In the Rose Bowl three months ago, with the Michigan defense concentrating on stopping Williams with all sorts of gimmick coverages, Colbert had six catches for 149 yards and two touchdowns in a 28-14 victory. That culminated a streak in which Colbert had at least one catch in 36 consecutive outings.

But be honest, with all the hoopla surrounding Williams, have any of you not registered as official draftniks ever heard of Colbert?

Yeah, that's what we thought. No one has ever caught more balls at USC but garnered so little individual attention.

Fortunately for Colbert, if you've got a pulse and post the kind of gaudy numbers he did in his college career, the NFL scouts will find you. And in a lottery so incredibly deep at wide receiver that teams are filling their plates with seconds, this consummate second banana has become the apple of many scouts' eyes.

There are some terrific complementary wideouts in this draft pool -- Devery Henderson of LSU, Ohio State's Drew Carter, B.J. Johnson and Sloan Thomas of Texas -- but the No. 1 prospect among the No. 2 receivers probably is Colbert. There is some chance Henderson, who played the complementary role to Michael Clayton for coach Nick Saban, might be chosen ahead of Colbert, but the consensus is that the USC standout is more polished.

"He comes from a good passing game, played for a great coordinator (Norm Chow) and looks like he can come in and help you pretty quickly," said one AFC personnel chief who has an interest in Colbert and has watched plenty of tape of him in recent weeks.

Colbert certainly helped himself in the offseason with solid workouts. His career may be tortoise-like, in terms of steadiness, but the notion of many scouts was that Colbert also had the 40-yard time of a turtle. But he ran in the mid-4.4s in his "pro day" workout, and some stopwatches had him a bit quicker than that, and resolved many of the questions about his speed.

"It's like, I had (scouts) coming up to me saying, 'Hey, where did you get that speed?' and I just laughed," recalled Colbert. "In reality, I knew what scouts were saying about me, and I knew I had to show them something. But the tape doesn't lie, that's an old (scouting) saying, one our coaches tell us all the time. If they put on the tape, they'll see me catching the football, and making plays. It's not like they have to look very hard to find me."

The doubters can be forgiven somewhat, though, since not even Chow knew what he had when he arrived with head coach Pete Carroll in 2001 and inherited Colbert as a starter. Three years later, after allowing that Colbert certainly was not a "flashy guy," at the outset, Chow acknowledges he made a hasty assessment.

League personnel types have now arrived at a similar conclusion. Having visited with Colbert and auditioned him, there is a realization that the USC receiver might have the ideal skills set and mindset for a No. 2 or No. 3 wideout at the NFL level. One scout remarked that, during his videotape review, he rarely saw Colbert frustrated when the ball wasn't coming his way and that he never loafed through routes.

Colbert countered that, while such an assessment is flattering, he was merely doing what was expected of him. It is that same approach, he said, with which he will enter the NFL. Not everyone can be a star, Colbert acknowledged, but everyone can play an important part of the big-picture galaxy. And so the lifelong second fiddle figures he can still play a pretty melodic tune at the next level.

"I'm going to be what I've always been," Colbert said. "And I think that's good enough."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.