Last month, USC cornerback Cary Harris leaned back in a chair at the NFL's scouting combine in Indianapolis and craned his neck to see Rey Maualuga doing an impromptu interview. Somewhere across the room, the Trojans' other star linebackers – Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews – were shuttling between seats, trading handshakes and smiles with NFL executives.
Four years earlier, this was exactly what Harris envisioned when he chose USC: musical chairs with the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick and New York Giants' Tom Coughlin. Maybe a breakfast with Bill Parcells squeezed in between. If USC is truly one of the league's prime football factories – and it undoubtedly is – then Belichick, Coughlin and Parcells are the prime benefactors, waiting at the end of an NFL draft assembly line with arms and checkbooks wide open.
"This is what you expect," Harris said, whirling back around after listening to Maualuga answer a few questions. In 2005, Harris was a high-school All American who could have gone to any school in the country. He settled on USC, with an eye on this February day when he'd be doing meet-and-greets with coaching royalty. "You know they have that [pipeline] to the NFL. This is where you dream of being. That's what the goal is. [USC] has put a lot of guys there."
To be more precise, USC has had 56 players selected in the NFL draft in the last 10 years – 13 of those going in the first round. And that number has ballooned of late, with the last three years touting an average of almost nine USC players a season getting plucked by NFL teams. It likely won't disappoint this season, either. Twelve Trojans were invited to the combine, and at least 10 of those players are expected to be taken in the draft. Quarterback Mark Sanchez, Maualuga, Cushing and Matthews are all expected to be first-round picks, while Harris is hoping to creep into the second round.
With an eye on this moment, he clearly chose wisely. Despite many of its latest draft picks struggling to carve out stardom on the pro level, the Trojans have established themselves as one of college football's most effective trampolines to the NFL. But they are hardly the only one.
With that in mind, here are the top 10 college football factories, and some of their raw NFL placement numbers …
Draft picks since 1999: 65
First-round picks:: 27
Highlights: RB Clinton Portis, RB Edgerrin James, WR Reggie Wayne, WR Santana Moss, S Ed Reed, WR Andre Johnson, RB Willis McGahee, TE Jeremy Shockey, TE Kellen Winslow, DT Vince Wilfork, LB Jonathan Vilma, LB D.J. Williams, S Sean Taylor, RB Frank Gore
Skinny: The "elite" talent has waned recently, as Florida, Texas and USC have begun snatching away players Miami would have developed and sent to the NFL seven or eight years ago. However, the Hurricanes' cache of players in the first half of this decade was unmatched. Miami's 27 first-round picks in the past 10 years nearly match the total NFL draft picks that perennial football factories such as Auburn and Alabama produced in the same time span. The only question is whether Miami's class from 1999-2008 is the greatest 10-year haul of talent in the history of college football.
"I don't know how you would argue it," Portis said. "The teams in [2000 and 2001] were basically NFL teams. You had Pro Bowlers rooming with other Pro Bowlers. Hell, some of the meeting rooms, if you took a picture, everyone in it would have been a first- or second-round pick. … You raised your game to stay on the field. You basically had to be an NFL [talent] if you were going to play."
Draft picks since 1999: 59
First-round picks: 10
Skinny: The Volunteers have produced a lot of top end defensive talent over the past decade, particularly in the program's peak from 1999-2004. Names such as Haynesworth and Henderson and Ellis and Witten will attract the most attention, but Tennessee filled out its value by producing a lot of steady starting-caliber players in the NFL. Players such as defensive tackle Darwin Walker, guard Cosey Coleman and linebacker Omar Gaither have played quietly productive roles. It helps that Tennessee didn't consistently produce a string of players who bombed at the next level. Even the guys who had struggles – such as wideout Peerless Price – balanced those out with some very productive seasons. The big knock from NFL insiders appeared to be discipline.
"Haynesworth wasn't the only one to come out of there [with issues]," an NFC personnel man said. "Between the two [defensive] tackles, to me, I thought Henderson was the crazy guy. There were a few of those types. I think [former coach Phil Fulmer] kind of relished that out-of-control edge with some of those guys."
3. Ohio State
Draft picks since 1999: 70
First-round picks: 17
Lowlights: WR David Boston, LB Andy Katzenmoyer, RB Joe Montgomery, CB Derek Ross
Skinny: No college program produced more NFL draft picks over the past 10 years, and no team had a larger single haul than the Buckeyes' monstrous 14-pick class in 2004. How Ohio State didn't win more national championships over this span is anyone's guess, particularly given the program's absurd wealth of defensive talent. The Buckeyes were the preeminent producer of talent in the secondary over the last decade.
Maybe the only thing keeping them from taking the runner-up spot to Miami is the number of young players who have yet to hit their stride – linebackers A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter, safety Donte Whitner and defensive end Vernon Gholston among others. If USC has a stranglehold on the NFL's underachieving young offensive talent, then Ohio State is its defensive counterpart.
Draft picks since 1999: 56
First-round picks: 10
Skinny: Despite producing 56 draft picks over the last 10 years, much of Georgia's elite talent has yielded feast or famine results on the NFL level. While players such as Bailey, Stroud and Seymour are among the best at their position, Sullivan, Pollack and Thurman were all out of the NFL after three years. But the hallmarks of the program in the scouting community are that it produces a lot of good, productive talent that is challenged at a high level in the Southeastern Conference.
Not every player is a future Hall of Famer like Seymour, or an epic bust like Sullivan. Instead, the middle-of-the-pack talent produces the solid quality that championships can be built upon: offensive tackles such as Jonas Jennings, Chris Terry and George Foster; linebackers Kendrell Bell, Will Witherspoon and Thomas Davis; and defensive backs Jermaine Phillips and Sean Jones. Unlike Miami, Ohio State and Tennessee, Georgia has gone through a dry spell at the top of the draft – no first-round picks since 2005. That will change with at least two (Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno) this year.
5. Florida State
Draft picks since 1999: 59
First-round picks: 13
Skinny: Despite fading from the dominance of the 1990s, Florida State continued to reap the benefits of a Florida prep base, leaving the program with ample talent for the NFL. It was particularly productive with linebackers, pumping out emerging NFL mainstays such as Ernie Sims, Lawrence Timmons and Kamerion Wimbley in recent years. But the Seminoles talent along the offensive and defensive lines continues to be maddening to NFL talent hunters, as a "soft" ACC slate leads to finesse players who can't make the transition. While evaluators seek players such as defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and offensive tackle Walter Jones, over the last decade they've often ended up with the likes of offensive tackle Alex Barron and defensive tackle Johnson.
"Their track record with linemen is bad," an NFC coach said. "They recruit guys on the offensive and defensive line who look great – really cut, square physiques with not a lot of fat or flab. Those guys do well in the workouts, which is why when you go to the pro days, your staff can get fixated on a guy who only looked OK on tape. [Defensive tackle Brodrick] Bunkley was one of those guys. He was solid on tape, but he worked out like a beast. … You get a lot of those guys [in the NFL] and they disappear when someone gets their hands on them. They look good physically, but they're soft when it comes to the football strength."
Draft picks since 1999: 38
First-round picks: 12
Skinny: Despite lacking the bulk of overall picks of some college programs, Texas has made up for it in top-shelf talent. The last three classes – with a total of 18 picks – have yet to fully flesh out in the NFL, so the Longhorns have the potential to be in the top two or three on this list. But they are also hurt by the enigmatic performances/attitudes of guys such as Benson, quarterback Vince Young, safety Michael Huff and several others. But talent is hardly a concern amongst the NFL's personnel crowd. Instead, it's the flow of information.
"We don't get much help from [Longhorns coach] Mack Brown," an NFC coach said. "A lot of coaching staffs will deal with you and share information on their guys, but he's not one of them. If I had a complaint about the way they do things, that would be it."
Draft picks since 1999: 56
First-round picks: 13
Skinny: The jury is still out on USC's three most recent classes, which include a whopping 26 draft picks. That collection – and the 2006 class in particular – has the potential to make or break this program as an NFL talent producer. Despite coach Pete Carroll's overwhelming success this decade with USC, the program has never really lived up to expectations on the NFL level. The struggles of players such as Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart and busts Williams and Dwayne Jarrett have marred a production level in the NFL that many assumed would rival the Miami classes from earlier this decade. The good news for Trojans fans is that Carroll continues to recruit at an absurdly high level, and provides open access to NFL teams.
"We could have someone in there anytime we want to see a player. They are about as open with the whole deal as you get," an AFC general manager said. "Pete [Carroll] embraces that the NFL is part of life in his kind of program. Maybe that will change with [Mark] Sanchez leaving earlier than he expected."
Draft picks since 1999: 48
First-round picks: 8
Skinny: It remains to be seen how new coach Rich Rodriguez will fare, but the previous 10 years under Lloyd Carr's direction established a dependable NFL pipeline. Aside from the rare freak who tested out extremely well, Carr's Michigan teams had a reputation for guys who proved to be good players despite not being first-round picks. Amongst NFL personnel men, Carr's players had a history of interviewing very well and scoring high in football intelligence. Many also proved to be good in the locker room. One of the few complaints about the program was that Carr tended to be overly secretive.
"Within the last few years, they had a first-round guy that we wanted to get in and see in their practices, and he refused," an NFC personnel man said. "It wasn't a first. He just didn't like the idea of letting [scouts] in. I think [Carr] had paranoia about that attention influencing players to leave early. … It never prevented us from getting an accurate [report] together, but it made it more difficult than it had to be."
Draft picks since 1999: 55
First-round picks: 10
Skinny: A program that has produced some nice talent and some ugly busts in fits and spurts over the past 10 years. The offensive talent has clearly been the toughest part of the team to evaluate, with NFL franchises swinging and missing repeatedly on Florida wideouts, quarterbacks, and offensive linemen. Receivers have been especially maddening. All of those players were recruits of coaches Steve Spurrier and Ron Zook, which relied heavily on finding the best athletes and then fitting them into a system that didn't mesh well with NFL results.
Urban Meyer's recruiting classes are just now hitting the NFL level, but his spread scheme is expected to produce more of the same. The most dependable aspect of Florida's talent base has been the defense, which has produced a few good players (Kearse, Peterson and Sheppard) and a litany of solid ones (defensive end Alex Brown, safety Marquand Manuel and linebacker Channing Crowder). If it weren't for the total number of draft picks, Florida might not be in the top 10 at all.
Draft picks since 1999: 32
First-round picks: 2
Lowlights: LB Gilbert Gardner
Skinny: Probably one of the more surprising schools, considering the lack of first-round picks and the comparatively small number of NFL picks over the last 10 years. But coach Joe Tiller had a knack for producing solid, underrated players who often blossomed as they matured on the NFL level. Brees will always be known as the best player of Tiller's tenure, but players such as Light, Colvin and Okeafor all played pivotal roles on Super Bowl teams. While the Boilermakers offense typically drew the most attention, it was the talent around the skill positions that kept it on the NFL's radar.
"A lot of good linebackers," an AFC general manager said. "Almost none of them were guys that would measure out or [test] out athletically and you would be saying 'Whoa.' They were good players, mature seniors, who knew how to prepare and played their [butts] off. … Some of the offensive guys could be tricky [to evaluate]. The defense was always real straightforward. You had a lot of middle-round guys who could step in and contribute, and probably had a little [room] to get better."
BEST OF THE REST (Number of NFL players over the past 10 years in parenthesis)
Notre Dame (48): Only three first-round picks and a generous number of low- to zero-impact talent on the NFL level. Defensive end Justin Tuck is the only major star to emerge from this program in a decade.
LSU (46): Nine first-round picks with several of the potential superstars (JaMarcus Russell, Devery Henderson, LaRon Landry) still finding their way in the NFL. A few years from now this could be a top five NFL producer.
Nebraska (45): Lost most of its luster and only produced two first-round picks in the past 10 years. Still, it has offered some underrated talent: defensive end Mike Rucker, safety Mike Brown, defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and kicker Josh Brown to name a few.
Wisconsin (43): An NFC coach noted, "When [Barry Alvarez] was the coach, they had the worst conditioning of any major school." Nine first-round picks and some superb offensive talent (wideouts Chris Chambers and Lee Evans and tackle Joe Thomas) is tempered by super busts (tackle Aaron Gibson, defensive tackle Wendell Bryant and defensive end Erasmus James). Oklahoma (40): Produced quite possibly the best player in the NFL in Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. Also produced a ridiculous string of defensive busts (defensive end Dan Cody, cornerbacks Andre Woolfolk and Derrick Strait, and linebackers Torrance Marshall, Rocky Calmus and Teddy Lehman).
Virginia (35): The high picks are worth the wait. Only six first-rounders over the past decade, but they all look like big-time NFL players: defensive ends Patrick Kerney and Chris Long, running back Thomas Jones, tight end Heath Miller, and offensive tackles D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Branden Albert.
Arizona State (33): Five first-round picks and some nice offensive line talent in offensive tackles Marvel Smith and Levi Jones. But they haven't produced a defensive player of consequence since Terrell Suggs in 2003.
Iowa (31): Another underrated Big Ten program. Only three first-round picks, but a wealth of Pro Bowl talent – safety Bob Sanders, tight end Dallas Clark, guard Eric Steinbach, defensive end Aaron Kampman and kicker Nate Kaeding.