The Trojans would likely have three juniors drafted before Sheppard was taken 26th overall, Bush, White and Justice. Bing could go anywhere from late in the first round to early in the third. Smith is considered a possible third-round pick. “It’s a tug of war,” said agent Jerome Stanley, a USC graduate who represents former Trojan star Keyshawn Johnson. “Every kid in the last 30 days has thought at one point he was leaving. And at one point, he has had a counter thought. Even Reggie Bush at some point, even for a moment, thought ‘What if I come back?’ ” For each player, the decision whether to stay or go is a personal one. Different weight is given to many of the same considerations: money, academics, health, position, family circumstances and career goals. A year ago, quarterback Matt Leinart, prompted in part by a need for elbow surgery, returned. Linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who hoped to support his family, surprised just as many people by leaving. “You look at other guys at your position group and how you stack yourself,” said defensive end Lawrence Jackson, a third-year sophomore who briefly considered leaving. “Why go out if you have guys like Tamba Hali (Penn State) or Elvis Dumervil (Louisville)? They proved themselves over the course of time. You have to be real with yourself.” “LenDale and Reggie started and played for three years. If you can’t get a good evaluation off that, you never will.” While the NFL provides a preliminary assessment of any underclassman’s draft stock who requests it, players must declare their intentions more than three months before the late-April draft. In that span, players will work out for scouts at the NFL Combine or their school, and will also have interviews with teams interested in drafting them, all things that can impact where they’re drafted. “Right now it’s halftime,” said agent Jamal Tooson, who used to represent former USC defensive end Kenechi Udeze, a projected No. 9 pick who fell to 20th when doctors discovered a shoulder injury at the NFL Combine. “Once a player declares, they look at every game a guy has played and they start to factor in injuries, some of which they may not find out about until the combine.” The difference in money for high draft picks can be immense. Braylon Edwards, chosen third overall by Cleveland, received $20 million in guaranteed money. Mike Williams, the former USC receiver chosen 10th by Detroit, got a deal that guaranteed him $10 million. Carroll uses Udeze and Williams as examples when he talks to his team, saying they would have benefited by returning to school, but Williams disagrees. “The fact remains the same with me whether I came out or not,” he said. “Braylon Edwards still ran faster. Troy Williamson (a receiver chosen seventh by Minnesota) would still run faster than me. “Nobody really knows what will happen in the draft. Coach Carroll is not a GM. Nobody knows how it will play out until the commissioner calls your name.” Returning to school is not without its drawbacks, either. From an economic point of view, how much does a player need to improve his stock to earn back the money he didn’t earn by staying in school? Also, by going back to school the player is one year further removed from free agency. Then there is the risk of injury. Chicago Bears defensive end Adewale Ogunleye was projected as a borderline first-round pick at Indiana in 2000, but chose to return for his senior season. Midway through it, he blew out a knee and went undrafted. “If I had it to do over again, I’d have left,” said Ogunleye, who became a Pro Bowl player and earned a new contract. “But I can’t complain. It made me understand very early that this is a business. One minute you’re on top and then nobody cares about you.” And at USC right now, it is very much about business. Considering that Bush and Leinart are likely to be among the top few picks, and that USC could have as many as five players chosen in the first round, there was somewhere in the neighborhood of $75 million in signing bonuses alone running around the practice fields at USC. The total value of the contracts could triple that. If the standard cut for an agent is three percent, then that’s at least several million dollars in commissions to be had. This led to competition that one veteran agent described as “out of control.” Said another agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity: “Most agents are ethical, but there’s a lot that aren’t ethical. Since there’s so much money out there to get, some people have crossed the line to get it.” Neither agent would elaborate and said they knew of no instances where players were given money or anything would violate NCAA rules. However, that was one concern this fall when administrators banned agents from practice. Another was that so many of USC’s best players are underclassmen. The more that return, the better the Trojans’ prospects next season. “There’s no reason they should be able to (attend practice),” Carroll said. “They are not necessary at this stage. They’ll do everything they can to make kids think otherwise. We’ll give (players) everything they could possibly need. We’ll do it without asking for fees. Our perspective is much clearer. We’re acting in their best interests.” Some players and many agents believe Carroll is acting out of self-interest when he says players can earn more money by returning for their senior season, as he did with Leinart. “Does Coach Carroll say he’s wrong if Matt isn’t the No. 1 pick now?” said Williams, who was forced to sit out last season when a court ruling allowing him to enter the NFL after his sophomore season was reversed. “For every pro, there’s a con. When I came out I was a kid making a decision. I had a million reasons that were right and a million that were wrong.” Carroll recently brought in two former NFL personnel directors, Pat Kirwan and Joe Mendes, to counsel USC players on the draft. Kirwan, a close friend of Carroll’s who speaks to the Trojans on the subject each year, met individually with Bush, Justice and Bing. However, privately some players questioned the reliability of the advice. Kirwan received a commission worth at least $120,000 from agent David Dunn for steering Carson Palmer to him three years ago. Kirwan has said he no longer has such agreements with agents. In the end, the players say they will take all the advice into consideration and then follow their hearts as much as their heads. “The best thing for me and my family are the two things I took into consideration,” said Justice, who has not chosen an agent. “I don’t know about LenDale or Darnell’s situation. We’re all different. If it’s right for me, that’s all that matters.” Billy Witz, (818) 713-3621 [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREGift Box shows no rust in San Antonio Stakes win at Santa Anita Yet the toughest part of leaving has been telling USC coach Pete Carroll, who is leaning heavily on Justice to stay. It is a conversation Justice has put off for two days now. “Pete Carroll has been a super coach and a mentor to my son,” said Gary Justice, Winston’s father. “Pete has been the kind of coach that when he recommends something, it’s hard to turn down.” Carroll has been relying heavily on his power of persuasion in recent days, hoping to convince a talented group of underclassmen to return next season. The deadline to apply for the NFL draft is Sunday. While nobody expects Reggie Bush to come back and fellow running back LenDale White on Tuesday chose an agent, four other underclassmen have seriously considered leaving early, Justice, safety Darnell Bing, receiver Steve Smith and guard Fred Matua. Only one school has had as many as four underclassmen drafted, Florida in 2002, when cornerback Lito Sheppard was drafted in the first round and tackle Mike Pearson and receivers Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney were chosen in the second. But it has not been an easy decision. If Justice were to return, the athletic department’s formidable publicity machine would push him for the Outland Trophy, and if he works his way into a top-5 pick next year he could expect to more than double his signing bonus. At first glance, it would seem to be an easy decision for Winston Justice. If the USC offensive tackle gives up his senior season to enter the NFL, he’ll probably be drafted somewhere in the middle of the first round, where he could reasonably expect a signing bonus upwards of $7 million. There are other incentives, too. Justice would relish the chance to test himself against professionals, he’d be happy to leave school at the same time as several friends and he has the blessing of his parents, who originally had pushed him to finish his degree.