- Greg Katz, Columnist, WeAreSC.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Like the constant cycle of recruiting, the NFL doesn’t take a day off when it comes to the draft. Although the 2015 NFL draft is now history and six Trojans were selected in Chicago, the 2016 draft, too, figures to acquire a solid amount of athletes from the cardinal and gold.
With an eye toward the 2016 draft, let’s speculate on those USC seniors/juniors that will either get drafted, are likely to be drafted, or be on the fence to be drafted. For the purpose of objectivity, only those players that have a realistic chance of being draft prospects will be profiled. In each category, candidates are listed in alphabetical order.
Seniors who will be drafted
Quarterback Cody Kessler (2014 All-Pac-12 honorable mention): There will be a lot on the line on so many levels this season for Kessler, who will try to prove that he is on or near the same level as this season’s top drafted quarterbacks, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. That’s quite a level to aspire, but like we all know, the draft can be all about systems and needs. Kessler still has a lot to prove before being considered a first-round pick.
Center Max Tuerk (All-Pac-12 first team): Already a senior, Tuerk has all the tools to be a high draft selection. And Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian, who knows talent, says that Tuerk is the best center in the country. Tuerk is versatile enough to play guard, perhaps his most natural position. The senior has first-round potential.
Seniors likely to be drafted
Defensive tackle Claude Pelon: No Trojan passes the eye test better than Pelon. This will be his second USC season after transferring from Arizona Mesa CC. Consistency is the challenge, and Pelon could play his way into a mid-range draft choice. The 2015 season is a critical audition for Pelon before a potential invite to important all-star games and the NFL combine.
Corner Kevon Seymour: There has been a lot of improvement in Seymour’s game this spring, and coming back for his senior season should be a blessing. With teams reluctant to throw in the vicinity of the Trojans' other CB, spectacular sophomore Adoree’ Jackson, Seymour will have even more opportunities to show he can be a shutdown corner. His final season’s performance will dictate where he stands in the eyes of the NFL
Defensive tackle Delvon Simmons: Simmons has gotten better but will need to show he is a dominant player on every down to make sure the NFL takes notice. Simmons has talent and having played with Leonard Williams, he knows the type of work ethic it takes to be a top-10 selection.
Seniors on the fence to be drafted
Linebacker Lamar Dawson: The word “potential” is a good description for Dawson, who was injured last season and redshirted. But the early returns from spring were that he was playing better than ever. What isn’t known is how he’ll play in games. In the past, perhaps because he was ill-suited for Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2 defense, he didn’t always deliver, but perhaps Justin Wilcox’s defense will liberate him in the same way that former Trojans running back Javorius “Buck” Allen was liberated by a head coaching change and philosophical alterations.
Running back Tre Madden: Perhaps the biggest enigma of draft-eligible Trojans for the 2016 draft, the senior has physical gifts but has yet to show he can make it through a season without injury. If he does perform to what many feel is a wealth of potential, his stock could rise in a hurry. His grandfather is former Los Angeles Rams star running back Lawrence McCutcheon.
Fullback Jahleel Pinner: He is an intriguing player due to his versatility as a runner and receiver. Because of the Trojans' declining use of the fullback, it probably affects Pinner’s hopes of being drafted.
Linebacker Anthony Sarao: A very smart player but some question his foot speed at the next level and his size (6-foot, 220 pounds). He loves the game and effort has never been a question. He could be a sleeper when it comes to the draft. Right now he seems more like a free-agent signing waiting to happen.
Defensive tackle Cody Temple: Oft-injured, Temple seems to have found some luck as it applies to his final spring practice season and showed positive signs. He’s big enough to hold his own and will be eyed by NFL scouts. It’s hard to say how much he has in his tank because of his past health issues, but the desire is there at this point of his star-crossed career.
Defensive end Greg Townsend Jr.: Although he is the son of former NFL star Greg Townsend, Junior has never been healthy enough to show on the field what he has at this point. He appears to be a free-agent candidate more than a draftable prospect.
Fullback Soma Vainuku: Fullback is becoming like an extinct position at both the college and pro level, but Vainuku has one huge advantage in that he is recognized as the Pac-12’s premier special-teams assassin. NFL teams love the versatility of players like Vainuku, so if he can stay healthy in 2015, he could get more than a sniff from NFL teams.
Defensive tackle Antwaun Woods: Thus far it’s been a mixed bag for Woods. There are times he controls the opposition’s center, but there are times they dominate him without the use of a double-team blocking combination. If teams start to double on him, Woods will know he has raised his game and so will NFL scouts.
Juniors likely to apply and be drafted
Linebacker Su’a Cravens (AP third team All-American/All-Pac-12 first team): About as much of a lock as you can have for a non-senior to be drafted in 2016 and drafted high. He has so solidified his spot as an outside linebacker from originally starting in the secondary, there is little talk at this time of his future being in the secondary. He should again be highly decorated following this season and is likely a first-round draft probability. Of all the USC players that are draft eligible, he could be the Trojans' top draft prospect regardless of class.
Juniors that might apply and be drafted
Offensive tackle Zach Banner (CollegeFootballNews.com sophomore All-American honorable mention): It figures Banner will go pro after the season, but he could use an additional season after this one to continue to hone his skills. Banner has made major strides since his hip surgery.
Running back Justin Davis: It all depends on what kind of season Davis has. He could be one of those rare four-year college running backs or he could take a shot at the NFL if he feels he’s ready and has his degree. He has to prove that he is physical enough, show he’s not injury prone, and has the speed to take it to the house. No question about his work ethic and character.
Juniors that might apply but are on the fence
Linebacker Scott Felix: The kid is tough and plays hard, but there have been issues of field awareness and consistency. Like Banner, he might want to go, but for his future, the 2016 season might provide him with the additional seasoning he might need to impress NFL scouts.
Wide receiver Darreus Rogers: Plays within a unit of receivers that are among the best in the country. He can high-point a ball with exceptional skill but does not possess the breakaway speed to be considered a consistent game-breaker.
Offensive tackle Chad Wheeler: Will he be ready to return to the starting lineup at left tackle after rehabbing from right knee surgery (torn ligaments)? Wheeler is an extremely hard worker, has made significant development over his career, and seemed to be hitting his stride until an injury last season at Utah. It seems more realistic that he doesn’t apply for the draft, which would be the correct move for potential NFL aspirations. NFL scouts will take notice that Wheeler won the 2014 Bob Chandler Award for athletics/academics/character.
Cody Kessler, Max Tuerk and Su'a Cravens are believed to be top NFL prospects.