There’s an undeniable buzz among the evaluators at the NFL scouting combine when a player turns in a turf-melting performance in the 40-yard dash, covering the distance in 4.3 seconds or less.
“It kind of wakes up the crowd, so to speak,” Rams General Manager Les Snead said. “If somebody runs a sub-4.4, you’ll see the scouts kind of look at their stopwatches, then turn to their neighbor, flash them the number, and say, ‘Hey, look at this.’”
That’s precisely the reaction USC cornerback Adoree’ Jackson is likely to evoke this week if all goes well for him at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Blistering speed is his calling card, and could propel him into the first round of the draft in April, even though he doesn’t have imposing size at 5 feet 11, 185 pounds.
Each year, the NFL invites in the neighborhood of 330 players to participate in the combine, which includes physical examinations, tests of strength, skills, and intellect, and player interviews with representatives from interested teams.
Jackson, who is leaving college a year early, is among eight USC players invited, joining tackle Zach Banner, running back Justin Davis, guard Damien Mama, receivers Darreus Rogers and JuJu Smith-Schuster, defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, and center Chad Wheeler. The four UCLA players invited are tackle Conor McDermott, outside linebacker Takkarist McKinley, cornerback Fabian Moreau and defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes.
Even though Jackson won the 2016 Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back, his future as a pro is up for debate. NFLDraftScout.com lists him as the 13th best cornerback in this draft class. Mike Mayock, the respected evaluator for NFL Network, sees him as one of the more intriguing prospects in this collection.
Mayock points to USC’s 26-13 victory at Washington in November, when Jackson had two interceptions against a talented Huskies team.
“I was really surprised he was able to make a sophisticated read with the minimal amount he’s played at corner,” Mayock said. “But he made a sophisticated read where the No. 3 receiver was breaking out. He had to read through one and two to get to three.”
In the same game, however, Jackson surrendered a 70-yard touchdown to receiver John Ross.
“[Ross] kind of broke his ankles at the line of scrimmage,” Mayock said. “I mean, John Ross is so quick and fast, and he got him back on his heels, and [Jackson] never could recover. So he’s got a long way to go.”
An NFL team scout, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Times in November that Jackson “is always going to be limited [as a cornerback] because he’s not a big man.”
“He’s made more plays this year than he has in the past in terms of just production on the ball,” the scout said. “Still I think he has a ceiling as a defensive player … As fast as he is, people just have a way of getting behind him for whatever reason.”
Another team scout said of Jackson: “He may struggle against a bigger receiver, get pushed off a route or bounce off a tackle. He’s small. You don’t like to draft a small corner in the first round unless they’re really dynamic. This guy may be. He’s pretty damn good.”
Jackson could make an immediate impact on special teams. He had four return touchdowns last season, two on kickoffs and two on punts.
“You expect he can put the ball in the end zone for you while he learns his craft as a corner,” Mayock said.
The Trojans used Jackson on offense too. His explosiveness was on display in last fall’s game against Notre Dame, when he scored on a punt return, a swing pass, and a kickoff return.
In the Rose Bowl against Penn State, Jackson almost scored on a reception, intercepted a pass, and made several impressive returns. In the third quarter, however, he was tackled awkwardly and grabbed his leg. He limped off the field with an ankle injury, and was done for the night.
“After the Rose Bowl, I had many thoughts running through my head,” Jackson wrote in a statement he posted on Twitter, one explaining his decision to leave school early. “What was on my mind was that nothing is guaranteed in life and to take advantage of every opportunity that is put in front of you.”
Opportunity awaits. So does a sea of stopwatches.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer