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USC’s Austin Jackson awaits that dream call on NFL draft day

USC offensive tackle Austin Jackson blocks Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa during the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27, 2019, in San Diego.
USC offensive tackle Austin Jackson blocks Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa during the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27 in San Diego.
(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

Ever since he can remember, Austin Jackson dreamed of draft day. Sitting in the green room, waiting for the phone to ring. Hearing the commissioner call his name. Striding to the podium in a sharp, new suit. Donning a hat from his new team.

But in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, no part of this week’s NFL draft will play out as the former USC left tackle once planned. When his name is called, Jackson will be at home with his family in Arizona. He’ll wait in a virtual green room, with other potential first-round prospects, all of whom were sent kits of cameras, speakers and microphones to help them broadcast from home.

Jackson has no idea what to expect from there. In a draft flush with offensive tackle prospects, most teams have told him they expect he’ll be selected late in the first round. Others in that range have suggested he won’t be around when they pick.

“It’s totally up in the air,” Jackson said in a phone interview Friday. “I just plan on hopefully getting that call.”

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The 2020 NFL draft is on Thursday, and NFL team beat writers have made their first-round picks in The Times’ annual reporters mock draft.

That lingering uncertainty may be the only familiar aspect of this draft for the prospects involved. Without any of the usual pre-draft process to shore up their stock, save for the scouting combine in February, it’s unclear how and where NFL teams will place faith in their evaluations.

For Jackson, it’s an especially pertinent question. The 6-foot-6, 310-pounder, who declared for the draft after his junior season, is somewhat of a polarizing prospect among scouts and prognosticators. He’s been characterized by some as an unfinished product, raw in his technique, but oozing with athleticism and high-end potential.

To combat those concerns, Jackson spent much of the past few months perfecting his technique. But with no pro day at USC or in-person meetings, all he can do is assure teams over the phone or on FaceTime.

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Without the means to prove himself, Jackson worries teams might be drawn to unflattering, unfounded narratives. Recently, he’s even seen some chatter on social media suggesting he’s not as strong as he once was after donating bone marrow last summer to save the life of his sister, Autumn.

“I’ve had some scouts ask me, you know, when did I regain my strength back from the surgery?” Jackson said. “It would’ve been nice to showcase that I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, and that I’m ready for this.”

USC quarterback JT Daniels will enter the transfer portal, the school announced. Daniels started as a freshman in 2018 and missed most of last season with a knee injury.

Considering this draft’s depth at offensive tackle, even trace amounts of doubt could have an outsized impact. Still, Jackson is steadfast in his belief he’s the best available.

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The same could be the case at wide receiver, where this year’s crop will be the deepest in recent memory.

In another year, former USC wideout Michael Pittman Jr. might’ve already crept into first-round consideration. Few college receivers were more dominant last season, when Pittman caught 101 passes, scored 11 touchdowns and was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award alongside CeeDee Lamb, a consensus first-rounder this year, and Ja’Marr Chase, a consensus first-rounder next year.

USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. beats Cal defensive back Elijah Hicks to make a touchdown catch Nov. 16, 2019.
USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. beats Cal defensive back Elijah Hicks to make a touchdown catch Nov. 16.
(Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

But with as many as a dozen different receivers considered potential top-round picks, Pittman could be drafted anywhere from the top 30 through the third round. Where he’s selected will depend in large part on how much teams value production and size over any convoluted concerns about his speed.

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Jackson and Pittman at least had the luxury of easing concerns at the combine in February. For the other Trojans hoping to be selected, the shortened process means plenty of concern over whether they’ve shown enough to be selected.

Inside linebacker John Houston is perhaps the most likely of the remaining USC prospects to be drafted, while defensive end Christian Rector and offensive tackle Drew Richmond are expected to land as priority free agents.

“It’s just all the uncertainty,” Rector said. “It’s tough not knowing what’s going to happen.”

Bruins may have to wait

UCLA will probably extend its drought of not having a first-round draft pick to two years — its longest stretch since 2007 to 2012, when the Bruins went six consecutive years without having anyone selected in the first round.

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But they should fare significantly better than last year, when tight end Caleb Wilson won the Mr. Irrelevant designation by being UCLA’s only pick and the draft’s final selection, taken No. 254 in the seventh and final round.

There is some debate as to who could be the first Bruin off the board this year. It could be tight end Devin Asiasi, whose stock has enjoyed a slight uptick over the last week as he’s now projected as a potential second-round pick by draftscout.com and should go no lower than the fourth round.

UCLA tight end Devin Asiasi reacts after scoring a touchdown against Arizona State on Oct. 26, 2019.
UCLA tight end Devin Asiasi reacts after scoring a touchdown against Arizona State on Oct. 26.
(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

There’s also a chance the first Bruin taken could be cornerback Darnay Holmes, who is projected as a third- to fourth-round pick. Running back Joshua Kelley is projected as a likely fourth-round selection, leaving a slew of hopefuls that includes center Boss Tagaloa, kicker JJ Molson and linebackers Krys Barnes and Josh Woods as probable undrafted free agents.

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UCLA coach Chip Kelly said NFL teams are targeting Holmes as a nickelback and kick returner. After having gone from walk-on to featured back with the Bruins, Kelley has shown that he pairs vision, speed and quick cutbacks with a winning personality that has made him a favorite among fans, teammates and coaches.

About 60 UCLA donors have contributed almost $160,000 for training equipment and subscriptions to fitness and mindfulness apps for athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Most people, when they first meet him, they’re like, ‘Is this guy for real?’ ” Kelly said of Kelley’s sunny disposition that includes a constant smile. “And he is. He’s like that every single day. He’s just got a great attitude and you’re excited to be around him.”

Like Holmes, Asiasi left after his junior season, feeling he was ready to take his game to the next level.

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“Devin has huge upside as a tight end prospect,” Kelly said of the 6-foot-3, 257-pound prospect. “He can run, he’s big, he’s physical, good offside attributes and speed, what you’re looking for in a tight end.”

Times staff writer Ben Bolch contributed to this report.


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