Former USC Football Players Thriving On NFL Stage In The Big Apple

Aug 27, 2016; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) passes as New York Jets defensive tackle Leonard Williams (92) defends during the first half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 27, 2016; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) passes as New York Jets defensive tackle Leonard Williams (92) defends during the first half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports /

USC football is well known for producing NFL talent, with a growing crop of Trojans thriving in the two New York franchises including Leonard Williams and Devon Kennard.

New York has much to offer the sports world in baseball, hockey, basketball, and of course. You have two competitive teams per sport like Jets and Giants in the NFL, Mets and Yankees, Knicks and Nets and Rangers and Islanders. But in college football that’s not the case.

NYU and Cornell don’t tend to be powerhouse college football programs. In fact, you have to travel upstate to Army at West Point or west to Syracuse for any real college football tradition.

Over the years, schools like USC and Alabama have helped fill the NFL ranks in New York with some football icons.

Joe “Willy” Namath played for coach Bear Bryant at Alabama and led them to a championship in 1964. Namath then led the NY Jets to their first Super Bowl victory in 1969.

A few years before that, Frank “The Golden Boy” Gifford from USC led the Giants to a World Championship and also won the NFL’s MVP award. Both Namath and Gifford are NFL Hall of Fame members and true football royalty.

Another Trojan who took the most direct route from Troy to New York was Keyshawn Johnson.

Johnson had two fantastic years at USC highlighted by his 102 grabs for 1434 yards in 1995.

His 1995 Rose Bowl performance against Northwestern was nothing short of spectacular. On that sunny day, he had 12 catches for 216 yards and 1 TD and led the Trojans to a convincing 41-32 win over the favored Northwestern Wildcats.

Johnson was the No. 1 pick in 1996 NFL draft. He exploded on the New York football scene with three All Pro years.

The USC to New York pipeline has been strong and is only getting much better.

Currently the Jets have a defensive tackle from USC known to many as Leonard “Big Cat” Williams. Frank Gifford might have lasted until No. 11 in his respective NFL draft but Williams was gone at No. 6 in the 2015 NFL draft.

Many weren’t expecting him to remain on the board for so long but luckily for the Jets he did.

Williams was an absolute force on the defensive line for the Trojans. Teams often double and triple teamed him without much luck. The Big Cat can move and hit with explosive power, which was never more evident than when he forced a fumble against Stanford in 2014, helping to preserve a 13-10 win for the Trojans.

Last year during his rookie season, Williams totaled 63 tackles and three sacks for the NY Jets. Now in his second year many fans expect much more and will likely not be disappointed.  Offenses can’t afford to double team Williams because he’s flanked by two All-Pro defensive lineman namely, Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson.

Now more comfortable in Todd Bowles aggressive defensive scheme, expect a huge year from Williams.

He’ll also be joined by safety Dion Bailey and defensive lineman Claude Pelon, who is fighting for a place on the Jets’ roster.

It’s impossible to talk about USC football and New York football and not discuss quarterback Mark Sanchez.

As most remember Sanchez bolted from USC after one very good season.

And what a 2008 season it was, as he completed 65.8% of his passes for 3207 yards and 34 TDs with just 10 interceptions.  His quarterback rating was an impressive 164.6 and USC lost a single game that year.  That lost was a major stumble to Oregon State and cost the Trojans another national title opportunity.

In that season’s Rose Bowl, Sanchez threw for 413 yards, four touchdowns and ran for a TD.  The Rose Bowl MVP lead his team to a convincing 38-24 win over a highly ranked Penn State team, propelling him to a Top 5 selection in the 2009 NFL Draft. The Jets traded up in the draft for Sanchez and he went off the board at No. 5.

Sanchez quarterbacked the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championship Games. Only Ben Roethlisberger and Sanchez have led their team to consecutive AFC Championship games in their first two NFL seasons.

After things fell apart in New York, Sanchez spent time in Philadelphia and is currently competing to be the starting QB for the Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos.

The Giants have stocked their teams with a number of former USC football stars as well.

In 2014, Devon Kennard became a welcome addition at inside linebacker. As a rookie, Kennard had 43 tackles, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in just six games. Last year he had 58 tackles and an interception in nine games.

Now the third year pro has elevated his game to starter status for the upcoming season. Kennard has the size, skills and experience for a break out season with the G-men.

Outstanding Giants receiver Steve Smith also hailed from Troy.

Smith was an All-American receiver at USC and an integral piece of the 2005 National Championship team.  In the 2005 title game Smith grabbed three touchdown passes from Matt Leinart as the Trojans romped 55-14 over Oklahoma.

A couple of years later the rookie wide out also helped the 2008 Giants to their Super Bowl Championship. When New York defeated the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LXII 17-14, Smith had five catches.

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Two more exceptional Trojan defensive backs have battled with the NY Giants.

Terrell Thomas was a star defensive back under Pete Carroll in 2006-2007. He was selected in the second round of the 2008 NFL draft by the Giants. Injuries limited his NFL career but Thomas was a solid starter in New York.

Jason Seahorn was also a second round draft pick of the Giants in the 1994 NFL Draft.  He had eight productive seasons with the team despite a devastating knee injury  at the beginning of the 1998 season.

Each New York football team has picked up a legendary play-maker from USC, whether it’s a “Key” or a “Gif”.  Now Williams and Kennard are set to carry on the Trojan legacy in the Big Apple.