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January 2, 2011

BLOG: Did Gurley Make Right Decision?

Raise your hand if you're surprised redshirt sophomore wide receiver Tori Gurley is entering the NFL Draft? Me neither.

When we last spoke with Gurley during bowl practice, it was clear which direction he was leaning even though he wouldn't say it directly. He picked his words carefully, but gave enough clues signaling to anybody paying attention that he was leaving.

As he exited, Gurley said all the right things to reporters and on his Facebook page: how difficult the decision was, how much he enjoyed playing at South Carolina, how grateful he was to Steve Spurrier for his 'significant development,' and how playing in the NFL would fulfill his long-time dream.

Question is, will he get the chance to play in the NFL next season or will he end up like safety Emanuel Cook - undrafted and forced to find work in the UFL and other places before getting a shot at the big-time.

Gurley and former USC wide receiver Sidney Rice have a couple of things in common - both have great size (6-foot-5 range) and both left after their redshirt sophomore seasons.

But that's where the similarities end, in my opinion. Rice spent two years as USC's No. 1 wide receiver and caught 142 passes for 2,233 yards and 23 TDs. Gurley leaves USC with 75 career receptions for 905 yards and six TDs.

Rice and Gurley are different in another way - Rice was an outside receiver, while Gurley spent the 2010 season as a slot receiver where blocking and wrestling with defensive backs and linebackers was sometimes a larger part of the resume than catching the football.

Based strictly on the numbers, Gurley isn't close to being ready for the NFL. But, as we know, the NFL drafts more on potential (that's why Jonathan Joseph was picked in the 1st Round in 2006), and that's probably what makes Gurley hopeful of catching somebody's eye.

Remember, a NFL draft prospect doesn't need to impress all 32 teams. He just has to convince one club to give him a chance.

Ignoring his prepared statement for a moment, I have no doubt Gurley's decision is primarily due to his dissatisfaction with his role in USC's offense. He finished the year with exactly one-half the number of receptions by Alshon Jeffery. Gurley had 44 catches, Jeffery 88.

The Chick-fil-A Bowl might have been the final straw for Gurley. Jeffery had nine receptions for 130 yards, while Gurley had two for 49. But here's a sobering statistic for Gurley - Marcus Lattimore was on the field for less than three minutes and still ended up with more receptions (3) than Gurley and only one less receiving yard.

Gurley knew if he returned in 2011, the USC offense would continue to revolve around Lattimore and Jeffery and he would again be consistently pushed to the background (except for the Vanderbilt game when he had 14 receptions for 112 yards) like he was this past season.

In addition, he would have to battle Ace Sanders, D.L. Moore, Lamar Scruggs, Jason Barnes and a few other receivers for the leftovers.

Take away his big night against the Commodores and Gurley averaged 2.3 receptions per game on the season. In fact, he didn't have more than four receptions in any other game except for the one in Nashville and didn't even catch a pass in the Troy and Clemson games when - hardly a surprise - we first heard rumblings Gurley might leave for the NFL.

I have no doubt Gurley's advisors convinced him another year in USC's system wouldn't significantly raise his draft stock or, if anything, it would only decrease with the lack of attention from USC's play-callers.

Two other factors could at work here: Gurley's age and his position. He turned 23 on November 22nd, meaning he would have been 24 when the 2012 NFL Draft finally came around. His clock was ticking and Gurley knew it.

Also, I wonder how much Gurley truly wanted to line up at slot receiver. He was an outside receiver in 2009 when he backed up Jeffery and caught 31 passes. Was his heart really into playing the slot?

While he possesses the size and physical skills to jump over smaller NFL defensive backs, does Gurley possess the speed to excel at the next level? That's something pro scouts will be looking for at the NFL Combine and the individual team workouts.

Right now, I project Gurley as a sixth or seventh round draft pick in April. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he wasn't picked at all and had to travel the free agent route to make it into the league.

Defensive end Clifton Geathers left after the 2009 season and is now on his fourth NFL team in nine months with an uncertain future in the league.

I'm sure Gurley will be invited to the NFL Combine, one sign of the NFL's interest. If he is, he'll have a chance to show the flashes of the superb physical skill we saw from time to time.

We'll know for sure if Gurley made the right decision in late April when the NFL Draft is over. I wish him the best because he was always cordial to the media and I don't begrudge anybody chasing their dream. Heck, if I was in his shoes maybe I would be making the same decision.

I just hope for Gurley's sake it was the right one.

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