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Monday, May 20, 2013
Projections often can be distorted

By Greg Katz

LOS ANGELES - - While high school talent evaluators were busy this past weekend examining, analyzing, and projecting the future of prospects during the Nike Football Training Camp in Oakland, ESPN’s NFL draft guru Mel Kiper released last week his early offensive college projections and observations for the 2014 draft.

Kiper’s analysis of his top 10 offensive tackles for next spring’s draft revealed a Trojan, but it wasn’t returning senior right tackle Kevin Graf, a player most Trojans fans would expect to see in such early prognostications.

Instead of Graf, junior left tackle Aundrey Walker’s name popped up in Kiper’s rankings, a surprise considering how those who follow Trojans football closely have been weary and critical of Walker’s production and work ethic.

Aundrey Walker, Kevin Graf
Aundrey Walker and Kevin Graf still have NFL aspirations, even as their USC careers haven't progressed as smoothly as they would have liked.
Walker was been singled out last season as the offensive lineman that allowed UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr a clean shot on Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley that led to the dislocation of the signal-caller’s right shoulder, effectively ending his USC career.

The NFL draft evaluation of Walker and Graf gets down to what experts like to refer to as “the upside.” It’s a term of endearment by evaluators who project just how much future growth of physical and emotional maturity and motivation a player has remaining in his makeup to contribute at the professional level.

For the record, Walker did not make Kiper’s “Top 5 O-line prospects.” In order, that honor went to Alabama junior Cyrus Kouandjio, Texas A&M senior Jake Matthews, Michigan senior Taylor Lewan, Tennessee junior Antonio Richardson, and Florida State junior Cameron Erving.

The Trojans once tried hard to recruit Kouandjio, a Washington, D.C. area man-child when he was a coveted prep star at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md. The Men of Troy never did get an official visit from Kouandjio, who eventually elected to join his older brother, Arie, in Tuscaloosa.

As for No. 2 NFL offensive line prospect Jake Matthews, the son of Trojans Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, he did take an unofficial visit to his father's alma mater, but upon returning to his Texas home in Missouri City, the former Elkins High standout promptly committed to Texas A&M.

So, it’s not like the USC staff didn’t try to sign Kouandjio and Matthews, but Trojans fans can dream, can’t they?

The Trojans, of course, will have Walker and probably Graf as their starting offensive tackles. During their respective high school heydays, both were quite respected in recruiting circles, so it wasn’t like the Trojans were exactly recruiting chopped liver.

The out-of-state Walker (Cleveland/Glenville) received 2010 senior national honors such as his selection to the U.S. Army All-America Game. He was also named to the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s all-star team as a senior offensive and defensive tackle. These accomplishments were remarkable considering Walker missed part of his senior season with a knee injury.

As for Graf (Agoura, Calif./ Agoura), he was a member of the prestigious Parade All-America team and was named to several all-star teams coming out of high school in 2008. Not only a standout football player, this Trojans legacy, who redshirted in 2009, was an accomplished high school basketball player and shot putter on his track team. Like Walker, Graf had numerous offers before signing with USC.

Unlike Kouandjio and Matthews, Walker and Graf have been a work in progress. If there has been controversy, it concerns which player would fill the shoes of former All-American left tackle Matt Kalil, who went on to live up to his 2012 first-round draft selection by the Minnesota Vikings and played in the Pro Bowl as a rookie.

In spring ball of 2012, there was a general consensus that Kalil’s left tackle slot would be up for grabs, but that didn’t materialize.

The anticipated competition between Walker and Graf for the departed left tackle position vacated by Kalil was just a coffee stop for Graf. The Trojans coaching staff believed that Walker was the better athlete and best suited for left tackle, and that Graf fit the description of a right tackle, although having played left tackle at Agoura High.

As things turned out last season, Graf had a workmanlike season at right tackle and Walker’s inconsistency lead to a demotion during the season, replaced at times by true freshman Max Tuerk. Graf worked in obscurity while Walker became a focal point of scrutiny by the media and fans.

During this past spring ball, Lane Kiffin was again determined to play Walker at left tackle and provided no real competition to challenge the former Ohio prep star. As for Graf, he was probably shocked down to his cardinal and gold cleats when the final spring depth chart was released and he was listed as a co-starter with redshirt freshman Chad Wheeler, who was held out for most of spring ball with an injury.

To their credit, the Trojans coaching staff did sit down with Graf to explain the depth chart and the reasons for the depth chart listing. The situation for Graf is especially delicate given the expectations that he is considered a likely NFL prospect.

Perhaps the lesson here for those Bay Area Nike campers that strutted their stuff this past weekend is there are certainly no guarantees as they move up to the college level and definitely no guarantees for the NFL level after that.

Indeed, it’s a tangled web we weave, especially for NFL aspirants.