Friday, Dec. 20, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Tony Sanchez spent the early part of Thursday putting aside coaching to try his hand at decorating.
The Bishop Gorman football coach dug up some old photographs of 2010 graduate Xavier Grimble and found a message the former standout tight end had written to the current Gaels a few months ago. He hung them up as a tribute before Grimble, now a junior at USC, arrived with his team at Gorman’s athletic facility for practice ahead of Saturday’s Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State.
“That way, his teammates will know this is his house,” Sanchez said.
The Trojans enjoyed getting a look back at where one of their foremost leaders, according to interim coach Clay Helton, came from and may have felt a bit envious.
“They told me I never should have left,” Grimble laughed. “They came up with a lot of jokes today, that I went to Bishop Gorman University or Bishop Rich Kid, a lot of that stuff. But this is a great place. I love it here.”
Grimble hadn’t “run around” on Fertitta Field since days before the end of his high school career, when he led Gorman to its first of five straight state championships in Sanchez’s first year. The Summerlin campus might be one of the last places he practices as a collegiate athlete, too.
Grimble, a junior, will have a decision to make on whether to enter the NFL Draft or return to USC for his final season after the Las Vegas Bowl. Several scouting websites label the 6-foot-5, 250-pound wrecking ball as one of the top five tight ends eligible for the draft and call for him to get taken as high as the third round.
“I’ve started to think about it,” Grimble admitted. “It’s going to be a tough decision. I’m going to sit down and think about it hard after this game.”
Grimble has taken all the attention on his future in stride. It’s not like the NFL talk was something he wasn’t expecting.
It was while he was in high school that he set out to play professionally one day. Grimble started getting loads of scholarship offers in both basketball and football as a sophomore at Gorman.
Unlike many star teenage athletes, he had no interest in waiting and stringing along the process to bask as college coaches’ interest mounted. He wanted to make a goal and start chasing it.
“I just decided football was what I was going to do,” Grimble recollected. “I decided then that I was going to play at the highest level and be one of the best. That’s the road I’ve stayed on ever since.”
He committed to USC shortly after the epiphany, during his junior year before Sanchez arrived at Gorman. Sanchez remembered being awed by both Grimble’s build and demeanor upon first meeting his star player after speaking to his new team in Gorman’s gym.
“He was one of the best players I’ve ever been around as far as being focused,” Sanchez said. “A lot of kids walk around like they're big-time, especially when they’re getting recruited like Xavier was, but he was never like that. He was always such a pleasant kid, always appreciative of everything. And I’ll always remember that big smile.”
Sanchez describes Grimble almost identically to Helton, who was the Trojans' offensive coordinator the past four years before the bowl-game promotion. The 41-year-old has gotten to know Grimble well and considers him one of his favorite players to coach.
“He’s a guy you love being around at practice every day,” Helton said. “He puts a smile on your face.”
Helton is the fourth USC coach Grimble has dealt with, and the fifth — newly hired Steve Sarkisian — is already roaming the practice sidelines getting ready to take over. One of the reasons Grimble chose USC initially was then-coach Pete Carroll.
Grimble had second thoughts when Carroll bailed right before he was supposed to show up on campus, but Sanchez said they lasted “about two seconds.” Grimble got on the phone after one day of being “devastated” and started to convince other incoming Trojans to honor their commitment.
He’s never let any of the other coaching changes he’s endured — Lane Kiffin to Ed Orgeron, Orgeron to Helton — get to him.
“I can adapt to any coach and work hard for anyone,” Grimble said. “I can be in any system and I feel like I’ve proven that over the years. Changes are part of the game, part of the business. It’s going to be the same way at the next level, so I feel like I’m well prepared.”
At the same time, Grimble — who is four classes away from graduating with a degree in economics — is conflicted on if he’s ready to leave USC. He arrived in Los Angeles expecting to play for national championships, and the Trojans have come nowhere close.
Although he’s boosted his draft stock with a combination of blocking and receiving prowess, Grimble feels he can improve upon his career statistics of 67 catches for 708 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“I’m really hard on myself, so most of the time you talk to me, I’ll say I haven’t done anything in college,” Grimble said. “But when I sit back and look at it, I think I’ve made the most of it. I’ve gotten along with all of my coaches and projected a positive image of myself. I’ve done some good stuff on the field, so I’m happy.”