Thursday October 11th, 2007

LOS ANGELES -- For the past five years, residents of this city had a custom-made retort when anyone asked if they missed the NFL. "We have a NFL team," they could easily respond. "It just plays on Saturdays."

USC, after all, populated the NFL with its alumni. The Trojans treated the draft like an annual graduation party. They went straight from Rose Bowls to Pro Bowls.

Around college football, USC's air of invincibility might have evaporated Saturday night, when 40-point underdog Stanford staggered into the Coliseum with a backup quarterback and beat the Trojans in an upset of Buster Douglas proportions.

But around the NFL, the air has been gone for quite a while. USC products, once the surest of things, have looked more like projects recently. Not to beat Traveler when he is down, but here are the most celebrated Trojans to turn pro in the past two years:

Arizona quarterback Matt Leinart, first round, 2006: Relegated to platoon role with Kurt Warner, broke collarbone last weekend, out for the season.

New Orleans running back Reggie Bush, first round, 2006: Full-time tailback with Deuce McAllister injured, averaging 2.9 yards per carry, winless this season.

Philadelphia Tackle Winston Justice, second round, 2006: One career start, opposite Giants' defensive end Osi Umenyiora this season. Umenyiora had six sacks.

Tennessee running back LenDale White, second round, 2006: Looking bloated at 235 pounds, splitting carries at running back, averaging 53 yards per game this season.

Arizona guard Deuce Lutui, second round, 2006: Starter for most of his two seasons, solid fixture on the offensive line in front of Leinart/Kurt Warner.

St. Louis tight end Dominique Byrd, third round, 2006: Two career receptions, zero receptions this season, arrested in spring for assault and driving under the influence.

Cincinnati linebacker Frostee Rucker, third round, 2006: Injured shoulder last season, injured hamstring this season, one career tackle.

Carolina receiver Dwayne Jarrett, second round, 2007: Nicknamed "Tinkerbell" by receivers coach, placed on inactive list at start of season, one catch for six yards.

New York Giants receiver Steve Smith, second round, 2007: Impressive during training camp, injured shoulder in Week 2, four catches for 26 yards.

Of course, some of this can be attributed to bad luck, bad timing and bad situations. It is unfair to pass judgment so early in a player's career. Jarrett and Smith are just rookies. Leinart and Bush are too talented not to rebound. White can lose the weight.

But USC players, at least the high-end ones, did not used to require this much work. They came out of the dorms NFL-ready. Cincinnati drafted quarterback Carson Palmer first in 2003 and he was a star by the end of his second season. Pittsburgh took safety Troy Polamalu in '03 and he made an even quicker impact than Palmer.

For NFL general managers, it was easy. Draft the best player available, so long as he went to USC. The strategy worked as recently as 2005, when Philadelphia took defensive tackle Mike Patterson in the first round and Seattle took linebacker Lofa Tatupu in the second. Patterson and Tatupu started as rookies. Tatupu was a Pro Bowler.

But there was one annoying exception to the Trojan rule. Mike Williams, drafted in the first round by Detroit in 2005, had problems with his weight, his hands and his work habits. Now with Oakland, Williams has two receptions this season for 35 yards.

Coincidence or not, after Williams flopped, a handful of Trojans took unexpected falls down the draft board. Bush dropped from No. 1 to No. 2; Leinart tumbled from the top 5 to No. 10. Justice, White and Jarrett all expected to go in the first round. None did.

At the time, GMs looked as though they had lost their minds. Had they not seen these guys in college, winning almost every game they had played, overwhelming almost every opponent they had faced? Apparently, the GMs had also seen something else.

Mind you, no fewer scouts will be watching USC this season. The Trojans have four potential first-round picks -- offensive tackle Sam Baker, defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, linebacker Keith Rivers and cornerback Terrell Thomas -- which does not even take into account the glut of gifted underclassmen who could also declare for the draft.

There is a chance that USC's three starting linebackers -- Rivers, junior Brian Cushing and junior Rey Maualuga -- could all be picked in the first round. Teams will not back away from Maualuga simply because Rucker has struggled with injuries.

USC remains among the best incubators of NFL talent, no matter where the Trojans finish in the BCS rankings. But players who leave USC are not immune to the problems and challenges that confront players who leave any other elite college program.

As Stanford showed, the Trojans are no longer sure things.

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