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USC freshman defensive end Drake Jackson seen as a ‘first-round talent’

USC freshman defensive end Drake Jackson seen as a ‘first-round talent’
Drake Jackson, shown at a football camp in 2018, is seen a budding star for USC. (Shotgun Spratling / For the Times)

Drake Jackson has only been on the USC campus for three months, but his startling performance during six weeks of spring football already has some talking about his departure.

“He’s a first-round talent, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he leaves in three years,” USC sophomore linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV said. “He’s something very special. You see he had a one-handed pick [in the spring showcase] and took off with it? He could play tight end if he wanted to. I think he’s a three-and-out guy for sure.”

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Jackson, a 6-foot-4, 275-pound defensive end, has been one of the biggest stories of the spring. It was less than four months ago that Jackson chose USC over Arizona State and signed his name to his national letter of intent as the Trojans’ most crucial Signing Day acquisition. His 18th birthday is Friday, and, with one spring practice left Saturday, he’s making consistent appearances with the first-team defense.

Somehow, Jackson, who wears No. 99, doesn’t seem all that surprised at his quick climb up the depth chart.

“It was just the same at Corona Centennial,” Jackson said Thursday in his first interview as a Trojan. “I came in as a young buck and started my sophomore year. So it’s kind of treating me the same way. It’s kind of like a next man up type thing. I just thought, if it’s my time to go, then it’s time to go. I can’t think about high school anymore. It’s time to get it.”

Jackson comes to USC at the right time. Edge rusher Porter Gustin is gone, and with that, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has minimized the outside linebacker “predator” role in his defense. The Trojans, in an effort to simplify the scheme for a younger group and improve their run defense, are now lining up with three and sometimes four down defensive linemen. Jackson has the size to play the run and has shown the speed to excel as a traditional pass rusher off the edge, too.

The USC coaches knew right away what they had in Jackson and wanted to give him every chance to succeed. So when sophomore linebacker Kana’i Mauga decided to move off campus after first semester, opening up a spot rooming with the talented Gaoteote, they saw an opportunity to put the future of the unit in an incubator of sorts.

Gaoteote is only a year ahead of Jackson in school, but he turns 20 in May, so he has two years of maturity. That, apparently, is enough to establish dominion.

“He’s a great kid. I love him,” Gaoteote said. “He’s like my little brother. We do pretty much everything together, whether it’s just kicking it at the crib playing video games or going out with the boys and having a good time.

“I definitely told him that, yeah, you’re young, but you’ve got to mature much faster than you think you do. He’s handled it, and on the field, he’s a monster.”

Jackson said he thinks the coaches put him with Gaoteote for a reason.

“Because he’s a dominant player,” Jackson said. “He taught me the playbook.”

The hope for USC, which lost six starters from last year’s defense, is that the youthful infusion of energy will make up for the lack of experience. Gaoteote said he could see how much Jackson would help on that mission from the first time he saw him work out.

Now, the freshman's confidence is unmistakable.

“This year,” Jackson said, “we’re going to make the offenses feel it.”

Trojan passing

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Pete Adams, an All-American offensive tackle on USC’s 1972 national championship team whose scruffy dog served as squad’s popular mascot, died April 6 in Leucadia, Calif., of natural causes. He was 67.

A memorial celebration will be held on April 20 at 2 p.m. at the Encinitas Elks Lodge in Cardiff.

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