So you’ll forgive the former USC Trojan for being less enthusiastic about being drafted by the 49ers than the rest of his soon-to-be rookie teammates were. It was nothing personal, you understand. Mays doesn’t have any animosity toward the Niners and in fact said himself that he had an excellent visit and that he “connected” with Head Coach Mike Singletary and Secondary coaches Vance Joseph and Johnnie Lynn. It’s just that Mays, undoubtedly one of the handful of best athletes in the entire draft class, expected to be picked higher – a lot higher.
The young man was disappointed, angry and bitter, mostly at his former coach Pete Carroll, who’s now in charge of the Seattle Seahawks. “I definitely thought from the relationship that we had, the things that he told me about what I needed to be aware of for the draft process, things that I needed to do, I felt he told me the complete opposite of the actions that he took,” Mays recounted.
What upset him even more than not being drafted by the Seahawks (can’t blame them for choosing Texas ball-hawk Earl Thomas, who was sensational last year) was the nagging feeling that Carroll didn’t do right by him as a coach to prepare him for the next level. Mays said Carroll told him that, “I didn’t have anything to worry about, that my game was okay, that my back pedaling was fine, my tackling was fine. All the things that I asked, ‘What do I need to work on? What do I need to show?’ I was kind of led to think that I [was doing] okay.”
Mays’ venting to reporters was in the heat of the moment and probably not something he would do again if life came with a rewind button. It was the raw emotion of a player who felt hurt and betrayed. A surefire top 15 pick had he come out as a junior, he stayed at USC for his senior year out of a sense of loyalty to his program and coach. The Trojans were going to lose so many starters to the pros (including linebackers Brian Cushing, Ray Maualuga and Clay Matthews) that Carroll begged Mays to shepherd the young pups along for continuity’s sake during the 2009 season. Having to play with so many green faces might explain why Mays spent much of his time on the field lining up 18 yards away from the line of scrimmage, literally as a last line of defense. He had to cover up for everyone else’s mistakes.
“I think he’s one of those guys that I really don't know what he was asked to do at USC,” said Singletary, adding, “When you turn on the film, when you look at him play, first of all, he’s not in the box. He’s not close to the line of scrimmage. And, whoever it was, the coordinator, just decided, ‘Hey, we’re going to put him back in the middle of the field 20 yards back and let him play.’ I think for us, Mays is a guy that has a ton of potential. And, our job is going to be to make sure that we help him utilize it as best he can.”
Regardless of he was utilized, Mays played well enough as a senior to finish second in the Pac-10 with 96 tackles and also had an interception and a fumble recovery. He was named All Pac-10 for the third consecutive season while also getting All-American first-team honors from the Walter Camp Football Foundation and second-team tabs from the Associated Press and The NFL Draft Report. Also, a slew of organizations and publications named him a first-team All-American as a junior.
The 49ers, who like to “mirror” their safeties and use them interchangeably, will use Mays far more liberally than his alma mater did. Sometimes he’ll be in the box as the eighth defender, other times he’ll be roaming centerfield. He may even get to blitz off the edge once in a while, which he didn’t get to do at all in college. For sure, Mays already has his coaches drooling at the possibilities. “The one thing I can’t coach is 4.38 or whatever he runs,” said Defensive Coordinator Greg Manusky. “I can’t coach that. That’s what mom and dad gave him. Now, we’ve just got to work on his footwork, work on his eyes and all of those little things.”
Indeed Mays does have the right genetics to succeed at this level. His father Stafford was a defensive lineman who had a nine-year career in the NFL with the St. Louis Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings. For those worried that the younger Mays inherited the hands of a lineman, 49ers Director of Player Personnel Trent Baalke insists the concerns are misplaced. “Even though his interception totals weren’t very high, he does have good ball skills. We worked him out and he has no problem catching the ball,” Baalke said.
The past is the past and Mays is moving on. While he called being drafted 49th “bittersweet” he saw the positives too. “I wanted to play for a coach like Singletary and for a physical team like the 49ers who will punch you in the face,” he said, while also speaking reverently about his mentor Ronnie Lott, a Hall-of-Fame safety with the Niners and himself a former Trojan. “I’m going to emulate him and live up to his legacy,” he promised.
If nothing else the 49ers got themselves an extremely motivated player. “I have the biggest chip on my shoulder of anyone in the draft,” he said, emphatically. Naturally the season opener on September 12 is at Seattle.