Taylor Mays finally had that conversation with Pete Carroll.
Their father/son relationship seemed to go south on draft day, when the new Seahawks coach drafted another safety, Texas’ Earl Thomas, instead of his star from USC. Mays went to the 49ers in Round 2 and immediately complained that Carroll had misled him about what he needed to do to become a first-round pick. It was great theater, probably more memorable to writers than to the central characters.
Last month, the two finally spoke by phone.
“It was just nice to finally, officially clear the air – even though I knew there was nothing wrong, and he knew there was nothing wrong – to actually just say it to each other,” Mays said. “That was nice.”
Now the rookie has turned his attention to a few other details, like learning the techniques and responsibilities of an NFL safety, and convincing his 49ers coaches he is ready to play.
From all reports, Mays has been one of the star students of training camp, soliciting advice from coaches and veteran players on the field, and logging extra hours in the film room. If a play fools him in the morning, he’ll look at the film himself before the secondary watches as a group.
A stunning combination of speed and brawn – Mays was one of the fastest players at the 2010 scouting combine though he goes about 6-foot-3, 230 pounds – he was something of an underachiever at Southern Cal. The 49ers are convinced that had more to do with his role than his effort.
“He’s always the guy at the end of the meeting sitting in there and asking questions when everybody else leaves,” defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said today. “That’s always a good sign. He’s a perfectionist. You can see that already. That’s something I don’t think you can ever judge when a kid is coming out, but I love his heart. I love his desire and his ‘want’ to be good.”
Certainly, Mays had a lot of ground to make up. At USC he routinely played 20, even 30 yards off the line of scrimmage. He was a punisher more than a true defensive back, and his movement was all in the forward direction.
“When I first got here, I never really had to backpedal. Now I can backpedal,” Mays said. “Now I feel good backpedaling, and I never really did that before. … Coach Singletary almost ran me into the ground on doing drills this summer, trying to get me to slide.”
Mays has been making strides, to be sure. He ran with the third team in OTAs and mini-camp, but when training camp started had been elevated to the twos. When Dashon Goldson got a day off yesterday, Mays even got some work with the first team. This morning, he intercepted David Carr in the end zone during team period – a skill he didn’t flash often enough at USC, where he had five interceptions in 51 games.
To be honest, though, the highlights have been sporadic. That’s typical of training camp, where sound fundamentals can get lost in the endless shuffles of plays and players.
“I just worry about what I can control. I’ve already been in a system where it’s been frustrating, where you don’t make plays, so it’s not gonna hurt my feelings,” Mays said, another subtle jab at the Trojans. “It doesn’t bother me.”
The hard part for the rookie is remaining patient and satisfying himself with incremental gains. Jim Tomsula, the 49ers’ defensive line coach, recently approached Mays and told him, “You need to take it one step at a time. You want to be in the Hall of Fame yesterday.”
Mays took it to heart.
“I just know that I want to be the best,” he said. “I think that I should be right now. Obviously I’m not, but I think I should be, because I see it and I know that I can do it – but I don’t do it on some plays.”
This Sunday is a big deal to Mays. The first preseason game is a yawner to a lot of veterans. The starters will play a series or two, if at all, and most fans will be done watching by the start of the fourth quarter. To Mays, though, it’s his first chance to show how physical he can be at the professional level.
“It’s gonna be a trip,” he said. “It’s gonna be fun. This is all I care about, so run full speed into somebody – and I’m gonna celebrate with Takeo (Spikes).”
And in the long run? “I think I’m on the right path,” Mays said. “Hopefully I’ll stay on the right path. What I do is just keep working hard and let everything else take care of itself. Because it always does.”