He could have been a Trojan.
He wanted to be a Trojan.
He was only a signature away from becoming a Trojan.
But shortly after DeSean Jackson awoke on Feb. 2, 2005, the first day high school football players could sign national letters of intent that year, someone called and told the Long Beach Poly High star that there were reports he already was a USC Trojan.
As the day wore on, the speedy receiver and kick returner became convinced that USC coaches had betrayed what he felt was an agreement to keep his decision a secret. That night, the player who would become one of college football’s most electrifying performers announced on television that he would attend California.
“Just one of those last-minute decisions,” Jackson said Monday in a telephone interview. “I kind of felt like they took it for granted that they had me.”
On Saturday, fourth-ranked USC will play No. 17 Cal at the Coliseum for the championship of the Pacific 10 Conference. USC is third in the Bowl Championship Series standings and has a shot at its third consecutive BCS title game appearance.
Cal, meanwhile, can spoil the Trojans’ hopes and earn its first Rose Bowl appearance since 1959. The Golden Bears are positioned to do so in part because they defeated the Trojans on the recruiting front for Jackson, who is expected to a be front-runner for the Heisman Trophy next season.
“It was definitely one of our biggest recruiting victories, because it doesn’t happen with us all the time with USC,” Cal Coach Jeff Tedford said recently.
Jackson, a 6-foot, 166-pound sophomore, has caught nine touchdown passes, many from long range, and also has returned four punts for touchdowns.
USC Coach Pete Carroll sees many similarities between 2005 Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and the thrill-a-minute Jackson.
“He had spots [last season] when he made some plays but he’s really torn it up this year,” Carroll said. “Gosh, they’ve thrown to him deep so many times and the punt returns alone are awesome.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all. I thought he was a great player, a really, really talented guy.”
Jackson welcomes comparisons to Bush.
“It’s just too bad I’m not playing for SC because if I was playing for SC then it probably would be a different thing,” he said. “I’m the closest thing to Reggie Bush. But I kind of don’t like to follow after too many people. I just try to be myself.”
Ask Jackson what attracted him to Cal and he cites the opportunity to mature away from home in Northern California and also to play as a freshman.
“I’ve been in L.A. all my life and SC is something I’ve always been around,” he said. “A lot of people from Poly always went to SC. I just wanted to change it up a little bit. Do something different.”
But Jackson said he had given USC a verbal commitment.
“We talked it out for an agreement for us to be under the table because I feel I wanted to keep my other options open and available too,” he said.
On signing day, Jackson opted for Cal.
“Early in the morning, before we even signed, somebody’s calling me and telling me it’s all in the newspaper that SC says I already committed and all this other stuff,” Jackson said. “That, right there, kind of made me just grab my paperwork from Cal and sign my letter of intent.
“There was too much cockiness over there for me. They were SC. They’re national champions. They’re just guaranteed they could have whoever they want.
“I kind of felt like I was a more special player than that and they shouldn’t have taken it for granted like that.”
Carroll and Lane Kiffin, USC’s offensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator, said Monday that Jackson did not verbally commit to the Trojans.
“Nobody remembers him saying, ‘I’m coming here,’ ” Carroll said. “He was always real serious about coming. But nobody in our place ever felt he was committed to us. We waited it out just like we do with other guys.
“It’s against the rules for us to talk about recruits before signing day. We don’t do that.”
Said Kiffin: “As recruiting coordinator and receivers coach, I never knew of any commitment that was made by DeSean.... We were here sitting and watching it on TV.... We were assuming it was Cal because we had never heard anything.”
Jackson dismissed the notion that he did not go to USC because the Trojans were loaded at the receiver position. Dwayne Jarrett was a freshman All-American in 2004, Steve Smith still had two years of eligibility remaining and incoming freshman Patrick Turner was on his way from Tennessee.
Bush also had two years of eligibility remaining at USC.
“I heard somebody said I wasn’t going to SC because of all the talent they had and all the receivers they had and I was scared and all this,” he said. “That never really crossed my mind. I never really thought the players they had there were any better than me or anything like that because I’m capable of doing anything that their players are capable of doing.”
Jackson wasted no time proving it once he arrived in Berkeley. The first time he touched the ball in a game, he scored on a 31-yard pass play. The first time he returned a punt, he took it 49 yards for a touchdown.
Before last season’s game against USC, Jackson told the San Francisco Chronicle that he considered the matchup “my own rivalry game. It’s been on my calendar all year.”
With quarterback Joe Ayoob struggling mightily, Jackson caught only one pass for nine yards and did not return a kick in a 35-10 defeat at Berkeley.
Still, he finished the season with 38 receptions for 601 yards, including seven touchdown catches.
This season he has 45 receptions and is averaging 18 yards a catch. He also leads the nation in punt returning, averaging 20.7 yards per attempt.
The Golden Bears stumbled last week against Arizona and lost the chance to make a run at a BCS title-game berth. But the opportunity to go to the Rose Bowl, and spoil USC’s hopes in the process, is all the motivation Jackson needs.
“I hope it didn’t take it out of us,” he said of the Arizona loss. “It’s a good group of guys here and everybody is just trying to accomplish one thing: the Pac-10 championship. And it’s right in front of us.”
Times staff writer Chris Dufresne contributed to this report.