The two hulking bookends charged with sparking a struggling pass rush arrived at USC with entirely different profiles, by way of entirely divergent paths.
When Christian Rector joined in 2015, he was a forgotten three-star recruit in a sea of blue chips. He was undersized, out of shape, and bound for a redshirt season. It would be two full years until his opportunity came, and for the next two years after that, Rector’s role would shift constantly, and he would push forward, anyway, recording 12 sacks in that span.
For Drake Jackson, it took only a few days for the world to appreciate his tantalizing potential. Oozing with athleticism, the freshman four-star took USC’s spring practice by storm in April. His rise up the depth chart was almost instantaneous, and already, before he’s even played a game at USC, there’s talk of how quickly he may rise up draft boards, too.
The two cases could not be more contrary, and yet, since Jackson’s arrival, the two defensive ends have become inextricably linked. On the field, they play across from each other, but on the sideline, they are constantly side by side, Rector quizzing Jackson on the little things or Jackson asking detailed questions of Rector.
Their relationship, as far as they’re concerned, could help bring the best out in both of them.
“As an older guy, he pushes us,” Jackson said. “When he leaves, someone has to step up. I want to be the guy. I want to be exactly like him.”
Rector considered leaving a year earlier, before Jackson even arrived. He filed paperwork with the NFL Advisory Committee, testing the waters to see where his draft stock stood.
But ultimately, he opted for another year, the last one having left a sour taste in his mouth.
“I don’t think [last season] was the best representation of myself or the team,” said Rector, who had 4½ sacks as USC finished 5-7. “I wanted a better story, you know? I wanted the happy ending.”
That story has taken on a somewhat different tone since Jackson’s arrival, as Rector has embraced a supporting role in the freshman’s rapid rise.
Even before Jackson burst onto the scene in the spring, Rector was behind the scenes, helping him along, teaching him the finer points of pass rushing that he’d spent years perfecting.
“He’s done a great job mentoring Drake,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. “Christian has been here for a while, and he’s worn a lot of different hats for us, played a lot of different roles. He’s really become a leader of this defense.”
This season, with Jackson playing opposite him in base sets, Rector, who added eight pounds of muscle in the offseason, may finally have a stable role to play on a line that should be more stout than in years past.
How often the two of them will play together depends entirely on the situation and personnel, Pendergast said. But given how the pair have invigorated USC’s pass rush thus far, it’s safe to bet that they’ll share the field early and often this season, potentially with both kicking inside on obvious pass downs.
So far, Rector says, Jackson has shown he shouldn’t be on the sideline for long this fall.
“He’s come in ready, a lot more ready than I’ve seen other freshmen come in,” Rector, a redshirt senior, said. “Now, it’s about honing it in. If you can take that freakish build, hone it in and get the technique [down], then you really have a monster there.”
As for getting to that point, amid all the expectations now following him, Jackson plans to just follow the lead of his other bookend. That strategy has served him well so far.
“His pass rush is phenomenal,” Jackson said. “I want to have my pass rush just like his. His get-off is great. We have the same playing style.”
“I just want to resemble him.”