Defensive end Drake Jackson blew by an offensive lineman and immediately had his eyes on quarterback Jack Sears.
Sears faked a handoff and began his throwing motion as another defender charged up the middle. Jackson halted his edge pass rush and planned to jump into the passing lane to disrupt the throw during USC’s spring showcase event Saturday at Cromwell Field. Sears thought he had an open lane as he turned right and tried to throw a screen pass to a wide receiver around the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Jackson.
The opening slammed shut like a bear trap, suddenly filled by Jackson’s massive left paw.
All the talk around USC’s spring showcase was about fans seeing new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s version of the “Air Raid” offense. A freshman defender stole the show instead. Jackson had a sack and needed only that one hand to snatch Sears’ pass out of the air before taking it the distance for a 48-yard touchdown.
It was a one-handed catch you’d expect from Odell Beckham Jr. or Julio Jones, not a defensive lineman, especially not from one in his fourth week of college practices.
Jackson isn’t an ordinary freshman lineman. He already is drawing comparisons to former Trojans All-American Leonard Williams, who was selected No. 6 overall by the New York Jets in the 2015 NFL draft.
“He reminds me a lot of Leonard where Leonard was a grown man as an 18-year old,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “To come out here in this type of atmosphere, your first time out to have fans around, to have cameras around, and make big plays like that. Not only that one play, but he was playing in the backfield all day. It was great to see.”
Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast also has made the connection, previously saying Jackson reminds him of Williams when the latter was a freshman at USC. Pendergast has seen similarities to another Trojans defensive lineman in the NFL, Seahawks defensive end Rasheem Green, noting that Jackson may even be “a little better-footed athlete than Rasheem.”
“He’s big. He's physical. He’s cat quick. He’s very smart,” Pendergast said of Jackson. “He’s been coached really well. The game is important to him. He’s a guy that loves football and I’m really excited about him being a part of this program.”
USC simplified its defense this offseason, which should allow young defenders like Jackson a better opportunity to make contributions early in their careers. Slimmer playbooks on both sides of the ball have helped the Trojans play faster.
“What I’m taking away from [the showcase] is how much faster we’re playing,” Helton said. “There’s no confusion. There's no hesitation.”
Done for spring
Fellow early enrollee freshman Jude Wolfe’s spring has been cut short. Wolfe did not practice this week. Helton said he will not return next week while he recovers from a back injury. Redshirt senior Clayton Bradley has been kept from practicing this spring because of a back injury as well. Helton said Bradley is currently trying to build strength in his back. He hopes to be ready to go in the fall.
Helton said the Trojans are being overprotective with redshirt freshman linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu after his surgically-repaired foot was sore. Tuliaupupu participated in four practices, according to Helton.
Light on tackles
USC was without its top three offensive tackles Saturday. Along with Bradley being unavailable, Austin Jackson, the returning starter at left tackle, was absent, and right tackle Jalen McKenzie was held out after hyperextending his elbow late in practice Thursday.
Helton said Jackson was “on a personal family engagement right now.” He is expected to be back next week.
Redshirt junior Bernard Schirmer was expected to compete for either the right tackle or left guard spots this spring, but he has not participated. Helton said Schirmer has a “personal thing that he’s dealing with” but is hoping he will be back late next week.