USC’s Bush contends for Heisman and top pick

Ralph D. Russo and Ralph D. Russo

Reggie Bush has been compared to Gale Sayers and Marshall Faulk. He’s the front-runner to win the Heisman Trophy and already holds the unofficial title of “Most Exciting Player in College Football.”

All those accolades are great, but what’s counts most for the USC tailback – or at least for his bank account – is that he’s developed into the best NFL prospect in the country.

A junior who has not said if this season will be his last at Southern California, Bush already has some fans NFL fans rooting for their downtrodden teams to lose and improve their draft position.

“I think he’s the No. 1 pick in the entire draft,” said Mike Mayock, a former NFL defensive back and college coach, who is now the NFL Network’s draft guru. “You beg, borrow and steal to get guys with that kind of ability, so you can have a one-play, 80-yard drive instead of a 16-play, 80-yard drive.”

As expected, Bush is playing it cool on the NFL, keeping the focus on USC’s run for a possible third straight national championship and leaving his options open.

His college career has been a steady ascension to superstar status.

As a freshman, he carried the ball 90 times for 521 yards, caught 15 passes for 314 yards, returned kickoffs at a 27-yard average and scored eight touchdowns.

Last season, he finished fifth in the Heisman voting with 908 yards rushing, 509 receiving and 15 touchdowns. He averaged 179 all-purpose yards per game, fifth best in the nation and even threw a touchdown pass.

This season his numbers have jumped to 1,398 yards rushing, an astounding 8.6 yards per carry, and 212 all-purpose yards per game, tops in the nation.

“In my position he’s been the best college football player in the country for three years,” Mayock said.

The one question about Bush as far as his NFL future is concerned is his size. He is listed at 6 feet and 200 pounds. He said he added about 5 pounds of muscle before this season to get up over 200 and become a more effective runner between the tackles.

“When you see him (before this season), he doesn’t look like an every-down back,” said Gil Brandt, the former Dallas Cowboys personnel director under Tom Landry. “He was as slimmer-type of a back.”

Brandt said Bush reminds him of Tony Dorsett, whom Brandt drafted second overall out of Pittsburgh in 1977.

“There was a lot of question whether Dorsett had the ability to play all the time. He was never hurt. Those backs are so good at avoiding tackles that they don’t get hurt.”

Bush has blazing speed, soft hands and is comfortable splitting out like a wide receiver. In fact, when the Trojans were breaking in a new receiving corps at the beginning of the 2004 season, Bush was their most reliable wideout for a while.

But it’s those video-gamelike moves that make him special.

“His ability to get to full speed so quickly and change directions at full speed, that’s what separates him from anybody I’ve seen,” Mayock said.

Bush’s seminal performance came two weeks ago when he piled up 513 all-purpose yards in a 50-42 win over Fresno State. Slashing and darting and stopping and starting, Bush made a year’s worth of highlight-reel plays in that one game.

“He has the smoothness of Gale Sayers and the vision and cutting ability of Barry Sanders,” Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s career rushing, said on the NFL Network after Bush blew through Fresno State.

Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis made the Faulk comparison with Bush after Bush ran for 160 yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries in USC’s 34-31 victory in October.

Bush grew up outside San Diego, watching Faulk play at San Diego State.

Faulk was drafted second overall by the Colts in 1994 and became an NFL MVP with the St. Louis Rams. Faulk’s versatility made him almost unstoppable in the Rams’ high-powered offense.

“I see (Bush) as a cross between Brian Westbrook of the Eagles … and Marshall Faulk in his heyday with the Rams,” Mayock said, acknowledging a team might have to get creative to get the most out of Bush.

“If you want to put him behind the fullback in the I and run him 20-25 times, I don’t think he’s that guy,” he said. “The whole key is matchups and you want to get this kid the ball in space with his ability to make people miss.

“I think he’ll have the highest draft rating in recent history.”