The University of Southern California Trojans are unquestionably one of the five greatest college programs in college football history–joining Alabama, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Ohio State on that exalted list. Consequently, many of those Trojan alums who helped shape this winning program went on to incredible NFL careers; a remarkable list of all-time legends, from Frank Gifford to Troy Polamalu, from O.J. Simpson to Anthony Munoz. Yet for every USC Hall of Famer, there’s a “busted Trojan” who failed to live up to his college career and/or his elevated draft status.
Sometimes the causes were a higher level of competition faced by a player unable to compete, sometimes it was their own internal demons, but regardless, these players did not have what it takes to succeed at football’s highest level–the NFL and match their collegiate success at the football factory in Los Angeles called USC. While the program suffered a huge hit in light of their recent scandal, in which they were forced to vacate wins and even resulted in Reggie Bush returning his Heisman Trophy, they are still a school that commands attention. However, it has been a while since the Trojans sent a deep pool of talent to the NFL. Here then is our list of the 15 biggest draft busts out of the University of Southern California.
15. JOHN DAVID BOOTY
It was destined this list of all-time USC draft-pick disappointments begin with a quarterback. Booty’s career at USC was marked at first by frustration–waiting three years behind fellow flop Matt Leinart, including as a redshirt freshman, but then he soared when given the chance to start in 2006 with 29 touchdowns and in his two years calling signals for USC was highlighted by 9-0 record against top-25 teams.
And though Booty was only a fifth round pick by the 2008 Minnesota Vikings, other quarterbacks drafted lower than Booty went on to transcend their draft status–Tom Brady drafted in the sixth round in 2000 comes to mind.. Booty transcended nothing. In fact’s Booty’s biggest claim to fame as a pro is switching from uniform #4 to #9 when a certain star quarterback named Brett Favre joined the Vikes for the 2009 season, one that saw Booty get cut before it began, while Favre took Minnesota all the way to the NFC title game.
14. MARK SANCHEZ
The “San-chise” has had an up-and-down NFL career of any Trojan alum on this list, from back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances in 2009-10 to being the literal “butt” of all jokes in the infamous Thanksgiving Buttfumble game. But before that, when Sanchez was given an opportunity to start his senior year in 2008, and he responded by scorching opponents’ secondaries to the tune of over 3,200 yards and 34 touchdowns. This saw the Jets choose him as the fifth overall selection in the 2009 draft. Sanchez paid instant dividends for Rex Ryan’s Green Machine, taking them within one game of the Super Bowl in both his first two seasons, making him the only QB to do that besides Ben Roethlisberger (2004-05). But it’s been all downhill for Sanchez since then, and he currently languishes on the Cowboys’ bench where he gets a great view of Dak Prescott winning games.
13. TRAVIS CLARIDGE
As the most tragic inclusion on this list, the sad ending to Travis Claridge’s life parallels his football career, as Claridge is the first–yet far from the last–Trojan on this list to have battled substance abuse, but in Claridge’s case, he paid the ultimate price. He was not a first round pick, but it’s more common for guards to be selected in the later rounds, and Claridge very respectfully was selected in the second (37th overall pick) by the Atlanta Falcons in 2000. At USC Claridge was dominant in the interior, winning the Morris Trophy in 1999 as the top offensive lineman in the then-Pac 10 Conference.
While he started 49 games over four seasons, Claridge never distinguished himself and was out of the NFL after the Panthers cut him in 2004. He died on February 28, 2006 at his Las Vegas home after an overdose of deadly opioid medication oxycodone.
12. MATT BARKLEY
Here’s a case where a Trojan stayed on campus one year too long. After throwing for 39 touchdowns his junior season in 2011 at USC and being a surefire top-10 pick in the following year’s NFL Draft, Barkley decided to soak up the college experience for one more year ala Peyton Manning. But when UCLA’s Anthony Barr separated Barkley’s shoulder in their annual rivalry game in 2012, Barkley’s status plummeted and he was not selected until the fourth round of the 2013 draft (98th overall) by the Philadelphia Eagles. Barkley managed to fool Bears fans for a couple weeks this past season but then threw five ugly interceptions against Washington on Christmas Eve and his future at the position remains up in the air.
11. LAWRENCE JACKSON
Defensive end Jackson starred under USC’s most recent dynasty, in the Pete Carroll years. Despite the punishments and controversy endured, there’s no denying the greatness of Carroll’s Trojan teams between the lines and “LoJack” lead the way on the defensive side of the ball, amassing an impressive 30 sacks during his collegiate career in South Central. The Seattle Seahawks, in what would be Mike Holmgren’s final season at the helm in 2008, drafted Jackson in the first round (28th overall). Jackson is added to this list because of his failings at the pro level with Pete Carroll as his coach. It stands to reason that if Carroll–with whom LoJack attained so much glory– was incapable of helping him, Jackson probably never had what it took to succeed as a pro. If Pete couldn’t help him, who could? Short answer: No one.
10. AL COWLINGS
Before “A.C.” became an all-time “gangsta” for driving O.J. Simpson on the Juice’s infamous run from the law in Southern California in 1994, Allen Cedric Cowlings was an All-American defensive tackle at USC in 1969 when he lead the undefeated Trojan team nicknamed “The Wild Bunch.” Cowlings was so good in college he was the fifth overall selection of Simpson’s Bills in 1970. But while he had a longer than average stint in the NFL with nine seasons, they were largely undistinguished, Cowlings rarely starting once he left Buffalo after 1972.
In the end, AC played with OJ in high school, junior college, USC, and two NFL teams (Buffalo and San Francisco, with both ending their careers in their shared hometown in 1979), before the pair came together full-circle for all the world to see on June 17, 1994.
9. R JAY SOWARD
The next Trojan with substance abuse issues to appear on this list, Soward’s alcoholism was his downfall. But before the bottle got the best of him, Soward was a dependable receiver for USC, nabbing 23 touchdowns, including three in one game against crosstown rival UCLA in 1996. This consistency made R Jay the first-round choice of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2000 draft (29th overall).
Unfortunately, his alcohol abuse got so bad, stoic Jaguars’ coach Tom Coughlin actually sent a limo to pick up Soward to ensure he’d make it to practice, as noted by Big Cat Country. Maybe Coughlin should have tried a helicopter to get Soward off the ground, as his one miserable season in the NFL ended with but 14 receptions.
8. JAMES FITZPATRICK
Uniquely born in Heidelberg, Germany, the massive tackle FitzPatrick was the Trojans’ offensive MVP during his senior season of 1985. FitzPatrick’s power and ability lead to his being a first-round pick of the 1986 San Diego Chargers (13th overall). Despite FitzPatrick’s listed size of 6-foot-8 and 305 pounds, he spent four unremarkable seasons in San Diego before heading up the California coast. He basically cashed checks for two more years with the then-Los Angeles Raiders, ending his football days in the same stadium–the L.A. Coliseum–where he garnered glory on the gridiron blocking for the mighty Trojans. Unfortunately, his time in the NFL wasn’t as glorious as his time in Trojan colors. In 65 career NFL games, FitzPatrick started just 19 of those, hardly justification for such a high draft selection.
7. ANTHONY DAVIS
“AD” was a gridiron and diamond great for USC, leading the football team to two titles and the baseball team to three rings. Chosen by the New York Jets in the second round in 1975 (37th overall) he went to the World Football League to play with that all-time great franchise, the Southern California Sun. Not surprisingly, AD dominated in the WFL, leading the upstart league in rushing at the time of its abrupt demise in 1975. That all changed when Davis went to the NFL expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and reunited with his brilliant USC coach, John McKay.
But the 1977 Bucs, in their second season, were terrible and Davis had no chance to excel. Davis does have the distinction of playing in the WFL, NFL CFL and even the USFL where he finished his career for the 1983 Los Angeles Express. But even as a second-round NFL pick, AD was an underachiever, gaining just 304 yards in 15 career games for three teams.
6. MIKE WILLIAMS
Before it all went so wrong, it started out so right for Williams, who set USC and Pacific-10 Conference freshman records during the 2002 season in all three of the following categories–81 receptions, 1,265 receptions and 14 touchdowns. He followed that up his sophomore year with 95 catches and 16 touchdowns, finishing eighth in the Heisman Trophy voting. But that early success went to Williams’ head and he thought he was ready for the pros. He was wrong and ended up having to sit out a year for technical issues, which surely stunted his development.
In five years with four teams, Williams managed but 127 catches for 1,526 yards–or about one season for the Steelers’ Antonio Brown–and most of that was accumulated in his one good year with Seattle in 2010, where he was reunited with Pete Carroll. But he declined greatly in 2011 and Williams moved on to the Raiders and then the Titans, where he prioritized the refrigerator over practice, ballooning to 250 pounds, ridiculous for a receiver.
5. MIKE TAYLOR
As an offensive tackle for the Trojans in the mid-1960s Taylor opened blocking lanes for running back O.J. Simpson during O.J.’s Heisman Trophy runner-up season of 1967. And like O.J. and the aforementioned Al Cowlings, Taylor was born in San Francisco, so there was a connection there beyond football. And maybe it was Simpson’s greatness at USC that got Taylor selected in the first round of the 1968 NFL Draft (10th overall) by the Pittsburgh Steelers Unfortunately for Taylor, this was the pre-Chuck Noll Steelers, a franchise mired in perpetual mediocrity that overestimated the talent level of players.
Once Noll was made head coach in 1969, he discarded mistakes like Taylor even before the season concluded and began assembling the Steelers’ eventual dynasty. Taylor bounced around the league with three other teams until it all ended for him 1973, having started only 15 career NFL games.
4. PETE BEATHARD
Going old school for a USC starting quarterback draft flop on this list, it’s almost as if Peter Falconer Beathard was a first-round bust in two leagues–the NFL as well as the defunct American Football League, in the pre-merger days of the 1960s. Before all that, Beathard led the Trojans to the 1962 national championship as a junior, rewarded by being chosen in the first round of the 1964 NFL Draft (fifth overall) by the Detroit Lions as well as the second overall selection in that year’s AFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs, the team he ultimately joined.
Beathard was horribly inaccurate–with a career pro completion percentage of 44.9–and never lived up to his double-top-ten draft status, especially once the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 suddenly upped the compressed talent level in the league big-time. Unable to compete, Beathard wound down with the aforementioned World Football League before momentarily appearing on the 1975 Raiders roster for a month.
3. KEITH RIVERS
As a star linebacker for USC, Rivers was a two-time all-Pac-10 player and an all-American in 2007. Rivers was known for laying out the hard hits, and that top billing made him the ninth overall pick by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2008. Unfortunately for Rivers, he wound up in the same division as Hines Ward and found out what real toughness was all about. Ward made certain that Rivers would never have a successful pro career after the Steelers’ future hall-of-fame receiver leveled the rookie with a helmet hit that shattered Rivers’ jaw. This resulted in the “Hines Ward Rule”, forever barring blindside blocks with the helmet. Rivers bounced around the NFL after leaving the Bengals in 2011, totalling a miniscule three career sacks and two interceptions in six seasons.
2. MATT LEINART
You know a quarterback has an underachieving NFL career when there’s more publicity about his conquests with women than between the lines. Leinart is the envy of many men for dating famous babes like Kristin Cavallari before Jay Cutler domesticated her. But on the field Leinart didn’t rack up the same scoring statistics, throwing for only 15 career touchdowns and finishing with a career passer rating of 70.2 At USC, it was a completely different story as Leinart took the 2004 Heisman trophy as college football’s best player, and he was the eventual first-round pick (tenth overall) of the 2006 Arizona Cardinals.
The fact that the 2008-09 Cardinals were taken to their only Super Bowl to date by Kurt Warner tells you all you need to know about Leinart’s career in the desert. The next season he was in Houston and he was out of football before 2013 ended.
1. TODD MARINOVICH
It was destined this list of all-time USC draft-pick disappointments end with a quarterback, whose infamous nickname, “Todd Marijuana-ovich” seemed to say it all. Not that there’s anything wrong with medicinally beneficial cannabis–and Marinovich’s real problems are with hard drugs–but the moniker symbolically summed up all that went wrong in a career that saw him throw a pathetic eight TD passes.
Even while he was a star at USC, Marinovich turned to drugs, getting busted for cocaine possession (which precipitated all the NFL drug tests he was forced to undergo), as delineated by the Mercury News. But still, he was named the college freshman of the year in 1989
The Raiders chose Marinovich as the 24th overall selection in the 1991 NFL Draft–ahead of a certain quarterback named Brett Favre. By 1992 he had lost his job to Jay Schroeder and was suspended for the entire 1993 season after testing positive for weed and was done with the NFL. Marinovich’s post-NFL career has been a mostly sad affair, with hard drug use (he’s graduated from gentle ganja to meth and heroin in recent years) and bizarre arrests (caught naked in a backyard in Irvine, California in August 2016).
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