For close to a five-year period USC was churning out top level offensive players that went very high in the NFL Draft. Carson Palmer, Mike Williams, Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart were all top 10 picks over the past five years. But this year it could be the Trojans' defense that carries the day with defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis expected to be the headliner.
"I played with a lot of those guys," said Ellis in reference to his offensive brethren. "I was just a young pup when Leinart and all of those guys were coming into their time. I think that was my first year playing and we were all young. It's transitioned to where now all of the guys on defense are coming out, me and Lawrence Jackson and Terrell Thomas and all of those guys. It's kind of transitioned, but we have some offensive guys here too."
Widely considered a top 10 selection, Ellis offers versatility uncommon for a defensive tackle lacking ideal size. At just a shade over six-feet and 309 pounds, Ellis is believed by many NFL evaluators to be capable of playing both nose tackle and under tackle in a 4-3 scheme.
"I can do either," he said. "The nose tackle, the one technique (outside shade of center), or the two technique (head up on a guard). I played both in college so I'm used to doing that kind of thing. Whatever a team needs me to play I'll play."
Ellis returned for his senior season in 2007 and led the Trojans defense to a number two overall ranking while also rating fourth against the run at just under 85 yards allowed per game. The three-year starter at nose tackle for the Trojans also tossed in a career-high 8.5 sacks.
He then carried the momentum of his senior campaign into the Senior Bowl where he flat out dominated the competition in the practices and the game showing an ability to consistently push the pocket.
Some evaluators still wonder if being just six-feet tall will be a disadvantage in the NFL. Ellis, however, believes it gives him an edge.
"A lot of people like taller tackles but I think my height is just great," he said. "You get these big 6-5 linemen and I can get up underneath them and uproot them out of what they're trying to do. Great feet work, great hands and the leverage I think works to my advantage a lot."
The true space eaters in the NFL, that handle two gap responsibilities, tend to be on the heavier side of 320 pounds. But Ellis believes he can hold his own right where he's at now.
"I think I can do it at 309," said Ellis. "At 309 I'm moving fast and very few of those guys can keep up with me. I have no problem playing double teams, as you guys have seen in the Senior Bowl and often in my career at SC when I took on double teams. I never had a problem with it before so I don't see why it should be a problem."
Bills scout Brad Forsyth tends to agree.
"He's ridiculously strong and he has quickness to come off the ball," said Forsyth. "That's the thing he's so strong and quick that if he gets a little bit of an edge on a guy he can hit the gap or he's strong enough to take a guy straight on and he can take people off the ground."
Ellis is fully aware of where most people have him slotted to come off the board. He realizes he and LSU's Glenn Dorsey are expected to be the first two defensive tackles off the board in what's considered an average class of DTs.
"It's going to come down to pretty slim pickings up there," Ellis said. "I think there are three of us in the top 15 or something like that. Teams need tackles and tackles aren't something you can make from a different position. We're kind of born. Not everybody has the body type. It will be interesting."
In a time where most players with first round grades as juniors come out early, Ellis chose to return for his senior season. He knows it was a risk, but was committed to his decision for better or worse.
"A lot of players in my position would have left a year ago but I chose to stay at school and finish my classes and get my degree from USC and also at the same time be a great football player," said Ellis. "Realistically you never know what's going to happen in this game. You might get hurt or something else might happen so I'm just happy that God has allowed me to stay healthy for this long and gave me the abilities that I have to go out there and play at such a high level. I'm just thankful for those abilities and I worked really hard at it. Coach Carroll and his staff worked really hard at coaching me, and with all of that work put together you get a good product."
And there's a very good chance Ellis will be just that for a long time in the NFL.