The freshman came screaming around the edge with a head of steam and little chance of being stopped. He spun an overwhelmed right tackle like a turnstile. He turned the corner, with the quarterback in his sights. And then he dove with arms outstretched in search of his first of what’s sure to be many sacks at USC.
This was the sort of relentless rush USC coaches had come to expect from Drake Jackson, who has earned rave reviews since his arrival in the spring. But on this particular play — and this particular night, as a whole — Jackson was just a split-second late and an inch or two short. He hit the turf, empty-handed, and Fresno State’s quarterback escaped.
“My man, Drake, he was in the backfield the whole time, but he couldn’t finish,” USC defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a said. “It’s hard because we don’t work on that during the season. We do some drills on it, but it’s never the same until you get live reps.”
It was a reminder, in one sense, of how far the freshman pass rusher still has to go. But while those live reps may have yielded more close calls than sacks, Jackson’s constant disruption was also a reminder of just how quickly he could make a difference on USC’s defense.
“He just has to finish,” Kauha’aha’a said. “You can see it on film. He gets so anxious, and he’s trying so hard that he slips by.”
By his own admission, Jackson is still prone to overthinking. As he stood in the Coliseum on Saturday, soaking in the scene of his first Saturday night game, coaches reminded him to clear his head, to tune everything out.
“I know my brain can take over at times,” Jackson said. “I just need to shut everything off and play.”
It took him almost a quarter to do so. But when he did, the impact was immediately apparent. Jackson routinely overpowered the linemen in front of him, forcing Fresno State on more than a few occasions to send double teams in his direction.
In response, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast played with different ways of deploying him, utilizing his power, with his hand in the dirt, and his speed, from a two-point stance.
Late in the third quarter, Pendergast called a twist, with Jackson darting inside and defensive tackle Jay Tufele going outside. The stunt left Jackson completely uncovered with an unimpeded path to the quarterback.
Still, he couldn’t wrap him up. Jackson would be credited with half a sack for his initial contact, but it was defensive tackle Brandon Pili who finished the work he started.
Jackson was hardly the only USC defender who let sack opportunities slip through their grasp. The Trojans finished the game with three sacks, but Pendergast said Wednesday that the defense could’ve had at least five more, given how much pressure the front created.
“We have to do a better job of locating the quarterback in the pocket, taking the blinders off as we rush, and anticipating his potential possibility of stepping up,” Pendergast said. “I think that’s the hardest thing for a defensive lineman to do.”
That job isn’t likely to get any easier against Stanford, which prides itself on its physical presence in the trenches. But the absence of preseason All-American offensive tackle Walker Little, who will sit out Saturday’s game with a leg injury, could very well turn the tables in that regard.
In his place, the Cardinal will trot out an unproven freshman at left tackle. And while Pendergast downplayed the significance of that, it’s not hard to imagine his own dynamic first-year freshman taking advantage.
As he watched film this week, Jackson let the near-misses roll off his shoulder. More chances would come. And now, Jackson said, he knew he could hang at this level.
“That’s a great feeling to me, knowing I can get there,” Jackson said. “I can actually do something against these guys.
“Now, I just have to finish it.”