The weeks leading up to the Trojans' appearance in the Rose Bowl against Penn State were filled with some anxious moments for the Trojan staff.
In addition to preparing for Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions, Pete Carroll and his guys had to face the possibility that a handful of USC Trojan underclassmen could be taking off at the end of the season.
Tuesday, USC announced junior safety Taylor Mays won't be going anywhere.
"There are a lot more things I want to accomplish as a player, a student and a person, things that I've dreamed about for a long time and that are big goals to me," Mays said. "Returning to USC will help me be the best player I can be and put me in the best position possible for the next level.
"It came down to whether I felt I was ready physically and mentally. I feel there are some more things in my game that I can improve upon, things that would help me take the next step. I didn't want to sell myself short."
Carroll, obviously, was pleased to get the news.
"We're obviously delighted to learn of Taylor's decision. He and his family did a lot of research and made an educated decision. He embodies all the virtues of staying," Carroll said. "He wants to do this not only to improve as a player, but he's coming back for his team, for his school and for the fans. We're looking forward to Taylor having another outstanding season in 2009 and furthering his standing as a player and a person.
"He's one of the most gifted safeties to ever play at USC and he wants to come back and do it one more time."
Mays credited conversations with current Trojans in the NFL as one aspect in helping him make up his mind.
"I want to be here for my teammates and provide an example to them as a leader and a player. I love the camaraderie here and the atmosphere. USC is a special place. From all the players I've talked to in the NFL, they say it's a whole different world up there. They enjoyed college more than the NFL. I want to enjoy my last year of fun before it turns into a business, " Mays said. "I'm also on track to graduate this fall and I know that's a big deal to my parents.
"I'm excited to start working hard toward next season. In fact, I wish I could start playing the 2009 season right now."
Mays was projected as a first-round selection.
The Los Angeles Daily News reported Mays and sophomore running back C.J. Gable would return to the team next season and cornerback Josh Pinkard will take advantage of a sixth year of eligibility.
A university spokesperson said Pinkard is moving ahead with things as if he's returning.
Running back Stafon Johnson and wide receiver Damian Williams had previously said they will return to campus for next season.
USC is still awaiting word from quarterback Mark Sanchez.
The deadline for underclassmen to declare is Jan. 15.
With Mays returning, the Trojan defense gets a major boost heading into the spring. Faced with having to replace five starters along the front seven, USC now appears to be safely anchored on the back end.
Mays recorded 53 tackles, fourth best on the team, and broke up nine passes — tops on the team.
Mays, along with Pinkard, both started for USC this season in the secondary. In addition to those two, safety Will Harris and cornerback Kevin Thomas both saw plenty of action.
Pinkard had 39 tackles, two fumble recoveries and an interception. Along with offensive guard Jeff Byers, he'll be a sixth-year senior next season.
Gable, perhaps USC's most complete back, returns after some public disappointment in a pair of benchings the Trojans' final two games. Gable fumbled against UCLA on USC's first offensive play and fumbled on the Trojans' first drive in the second half against Penn State.
Gable carried the ball 107 times for 617 yards and eight touchdowns. Gable also had a receiving touchdown and returned a kick for a score.
The Trojan backfield rotation seems to be cluttered again next season with Gable, Johnson and Joe McKnight, the team's three leading rushers, all returning. In addition to that trio, sophomore Marc Tyler looked good late in the year, Curtis McNeal starred in practice and Allen Bradford returns from injury.