TAMPA — Of all the football experts who have projected USF defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul as a first-round NFL draft pick, perhaps the first was Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett, who didn't hesitate in his evaluation after the Bulls beat the Seminoles in Tallahassee in September.
"Yeah, (No.) 90 is a definite first-round guy, I think," Trickett said two days after USF's win, back when many didn't know Pierre-Paul by name, much less reputation.
On Thursday night, after just one year of major college football, the 6-foot-4, 270-pound pass-rusher will likely be taken in the middle of the first round, becoming USF's highest-ever draft pick and the second first-rounder in the program's 13 years.
"It would mean a lot, to be the highest pick," Pierre-Paul said after he worked out in March for 50-plus NFL scouts on USF's campus as part of what should be the deepest Bulls draft class.
Safety Nate Allen and cornerback Jerome Murphy are expected to be taken in the first three rounds. Receiver Carlton Mitchell, a junior from Gaither, could go by then and, in one draft, the Bulls could have more players taken in the first three rounds than in all previous drafts combined. Defensive end George Selvie and linebacker Kion Wilson are also potential draft picks.
"When I first got here, I remember saying the Class of '05, we were going to change everything," Murphy said. "We've come a long way, but now some of us will be playing against each other in the league."
Pierre-Paul stands out from the group, perhaps from the entire draft, because he hasn't come a long way. His phenomenal athletic ability — he can do a standing backflip in pads, and a popular YouTube video shows him casually doing 14 back-handsprings in a row — has impressed NFL scouts enough to be a potential top-10 pick. That's rare for someone with only one year in the spotlight, with 6.5 sacks last season after spending two seasons at junior colleges in California and Kansas.
But he showed plenty at USF. He was named first-team all-Big East even over Selvie, a former consensus All-American. Pierre-Paul forced a key fumble against FSU and returned an interception for a touchdown at Syracuse. His long arms and quick first step caused problems for quarterbacks.
The JPP-mania boiled over this spring. At one point, several mainstream mock drafts had him going No. 3 to the Bucs. Now the highest projection is eighth to Oakland. Pierre-Paul didn't hurt himself at the combine, registering an unofficial 40-yard time of 4.64 seconds. He's versatile enough that some teams think he could play as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
The most common match for Pierre-Paul is Tennessee, which picks 16th and is expected to take a defensive end early in the draft. In the past week, he has visited the Giants (15th) and 49ers (13th and 17th).
Even the low projections for Pierre-Paul rave about his potential. One NFL.com mock draft this week had him going 32nd to New Orleans with the final pick of the first round, but said the Saints could turn him into an "elite rusher." Life is good when the worst scenario has you as the top pick of the Super Bowl champions.
"I don't really care where I go. I just want to play football," said Pierre-Paul, who was not invited to New York for the draft. "I'm ready. Put me on the field and see what I can do."
Times staff writer Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346.