Mays defends Carroll, Garrett – and the end zone

What a day it was for Taylor Mays, the rookie safety. He got a bunch of reps as the 49ers practiced nickel situations. He broke up a pass in the end zone, and got to chat with Hall of Fame defensive back Rod Woodson. And after all that, the main topic of the day was the sanctions handed down against the USC sports program.

Mays, a four-year starter for Pete Carroll at Southern Cal, probably knew it was coming. He showed his loyalty, acting as character witness for everyone from Carroll to athletic director Mike Garrett to new coach Lane Kiffin.

“I just feel it’s unfortunate that it’s being taken out on the university, on kids that really did nothing wrong, or coaches that did nothing wrong,” Mays said in the locker room after practice. “But that’s just the reality of the situation. I feel like it would happen to anybody or any university. But it’s tough being the University of Southern California. Maybe they came down harder on them because of who we are as a school.”

Interesting. The rookie can’t decide between “they” and “we” when discussing his alma mater.

Here’s Mays on coach Pete Carroll, a man for whom he has harbored some turbulent feelings since falling to the second round on draft day: “I know he doesn’t condone any of that behavior. … He’s not OK with that. I don’t put that on him. It’s not his fault that it happened. I know he don’t accept breaking the rules. He’s not that type of person.”

It wasn’t all NCAA politics for Mays today. After seeing little of the field on Tuesday, he got plenty of action today as the 49ers practiced third-and-long plays on a short field. He did pretty well, too, breaking up a pass from Alex Smith to tight end Delanie Walker in the end zone.

“I should have caught the damn thing,” Mays said. “I have stuff to work on. But I feel a lot more comfortable out there.”

One man who wound up impressed was Rod Woodson, the Hall of Fame defensive back (he played corner, then switched to safety after blowing out his knee) who was with the 49ers in 1997 and now does analysis for NFL Network. He was in Santa Clara to film a segment for TV.

“On tape, he’s a physical specimen – big, fast, strong,” Woodson said. “Out here, he was running by people, getting to the ball. I just remember one play. They were in Cover 2 and the frontside safety broke, and (Mays) ran by him, got to the ball before he did.”

Woodson cautioned that Mays will need time to develop into an NFL safety. Maybe two years. The man who wound up on the league’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team at cornerback claims that he “got ate up my first three or four years.”

That sounds a little overly humble, but Woodson’s point is well taken. You can’t just stick a college star in an NFL huddle and expect him to perform like a veteran.

That may be especially true of Mays, who never had to do much more than rely on instinct at USC. And it’s certainly true of safeties, who have to adjust coverage in the secondary based on how the offense lines up.

“I think with the calls that they have and the adjustments that they have to make on the back end, they aren’t just controlling themselves. They are controlling other individuals, with the outside linebackers and the other corners and the other safeties,” defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. “Communication is a vital part across the board and in football, but for them, in our defense, yes. It’s critical.”

Some NFL teams were scared away by Mays’ lack of refinement. The 49ers looked past that to his incredible mix of size and speed, and his apparent intelligence and willingness to learn. Now he’s busy developing all of the technique – the backpedaling, the crouch, the side-to-side movement – that was lacking at USC.

“I feel like I’m learning more technique than I ever have before, and that’s what’s new for me,” Mays said. “I never really played with technique before. I feel better doing that now. There’s some that I need to work on, some I have to address and some I get better at every day. So I feel good with it. It’s allowing me to play faster.”