University of Southern California football coach Pete Carroll calls safety Taylor Mays "one of the most gifted safeties ever to play at USC." Mays is also one of the game's hardest-hitting players—"I like to leave an impression," he says—and one of the fastest. He ran track in high school and consistently clocks 4.25 40. No surprise, then, that the two-time All-American was projected to be a top-10 draft pick back in April. But Mays turned down millions for one last shot at the national championship.
USC has had this long-standing legacy of producing hard-hitting safeties, like Troy Polamalu and Ronnie Lott. Have you ever had the chance to meet some of these guys, and if so, what have they told you?
I've always wanted to be mentioned in the same class as them. I feel like I got one more chance to be able to prove myself. Mr. Lott told me to always be hungry and not be satisfied with anything. And it means a lot, coming from him, coming from maybe the best DB to ever play the game. And Troy might be the best in the league. I feel like there's a responsibility to not let those guys down. I don't want to let the program down. I'll do whatever it takes.
A lot of mock drafts projected you to be first-round pick but you decided to come back. Why is that?
There were a couple more things I wanted to do. I wanted to win a national championship. That was important to me, and it hasn't happened yet. I also felt I could be there for the young guys on the team, like guys [before me] have been there for me. I feel like I have more to prove and I still feel like I have a chance to leave a legacy.
You're setting the sights on the national title. What's your biggest motivator?
I think what motivates me is asking what can I do to get better, so that this goal, this dream of mine, becomes more and more real. At the end of the day I don't want to sit in my bed at night and say, 'you know, I wish I would have done this today' — because I'm not going to be satisfied unless I feel like I gave my all.
It seems like you live in the weight room.
I don't like to be rushed in the weight room. I like being in there when guys first get there. When they leave, I'm still in there. And I feel like there's always stuff I could work on. I'd rather be in there working out to get better than to be sitting at home, wishing and regretting.
Have you always been a workout freak?
I think I always wanted to strive to be great. I work out, watch film, and take care of my body. I'm not taking any shortcuts.
What's the one game you're most looking forward to this upcoming season?
It's the least hyped game on our schedule, but I'll say San Jose State because it's the first time a lot of guys on defense gets the chance to go out there and play. But I also gotta say the Ohio State game. Going to Columbus, Ohio, and being able to play in the Horseshoe against a team like Ohio State — it's why you come to USC.
You were phenomenal in that USC-Ohio State game last season. You were really instrumental in holding them to three points. Everyone thought it was going to be a lot closer than that, so I'm sure they've got your number . . .
Oh, they're gonna be mad, yeah (laughs). I already know, they're gonna be coming after us. We're going to be coming after them, too, so it's gonna be fun.
Your dad was a defensive lineman in the NFL during the '80s. What has he taught you about the game?
The mentality of the game—I learned that from him. I think it's about just wanting it more than anybody else. And being able to do whatever it takes to want it more. I wanted to separate myself from everybody else, not in a conceited way, but in a way where I want to be the best. That's definitely what he taught me.
USC always starts every season in the top five in the polls. There are always great expectations at Troy. How do you handle that pressure?
You've just got to handle it humbly, because I think if you get focused on what the media says—what [analyst] Mel Kiper says, what ESPN says—that takes you out of what it took to get there.
Will this season be a bust for you if you don't bring home the national title?
It won't be a bust. The only thing that will be a bust is if we didn't go out there and play to the potential that we're capable of playing to. Or if I didn't go out there and prepare, prepare, prepare to the level of what I'm used.
What is one thing that would surprise football fans about Taylor Mays?
That no one would ever guess? Oh man, I like to listen to Taylor Swift before the games. I know it's soft but I listen to her! I can't even lie.