There are a handful of people in a football program who are very excited about having an abundance of talented wide receivers. Obviously the quarterback and the position coach enjoy having a number of targets to put out on the field and throw two. But maybe just behind them is the defensive backs coach, who knows he could be just a position switch away from getting his hands on his next great cornerback.
Position switches from wide receiver to cornerback don’t always work, and sometimes they’re made simply to add a practice body in the form of a player who wasn’t going to see the field anyway. But defensive back coaches love working with former wide receivers who bring elite athleticism and ball skills to a position they understand from the opposite side.
USC might just have the makings of a great position switch story going right now, in former wide receiver and second-year player Joshua Jackson Jr.
Jackson came to USC in the 2020 recruiting class as a three-star wide receiver and had a strong opening day of spring ball at the position. But Jackson didn’t see action in a game this past fall, as fellow true freshman Gary Bryant Jr. took on a more active role there as the season went along.
There was a discussion between the coaches and Jackson during last season about switching to cornerback — a spot where USC coaches didn’t like their numbers. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said the key to the whole experiment was Jackson fully buying into the idea.
“That’s always the player’s choice,” Orlando said of switching positions. “As a coach, the one thing you don’t want to do is force [a position switch] upon somebody. And when you sit down and look at him eye to eye, you get a sense of whether they’re committed to it or they’re just doing it because they want to be a good team guy.”
Orlando said he could tell Jackson was committed to it. Through this past off-season, and the very early stages of spring ball, that’s held true, and the USC program might be better for it. Now, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound cornerback, Jackson could be a key contributor on that side of the ball down the line.
Finding elite cornerbacks is not as easy as finding wide receivers who can plug into the college game right away, and there’s a reason that high school trainers plead with recruits to give up being a good wide receiver for a chance to be a great cornerback. Orlando said it became evident fairly quickly that they might have something there with Jackson.
“When he went out and started doing one-on-ones, or more importantly, when [Donte Williams] started taking him through individual drills, he just had natural movements for the position. And then obviously when you get a guy that skillful with the football, that’s a huge advantage.”
USC took part in Tuesday’s spring ball opening practice without returning starter Chris Steele on the field, which allowed some of the other cornerbacks to get some extra run. Jackson was called on quite a bit and responded extremely well. He had several pass deflections — one on a deep ball where he displayed perfect timing to go up and knock it away — and registered a sack after coming in off the edge.
It’s unlikely that Jackson will be absolutely needed this season, as USC returns Steele and Isaac Taylor-Stuart outside, has a few reserve cornerbacks in Jayden Williams, Adonis Otey and Dorian Hewett, and will add a highly-ranked pair of prospects this fall, in Ceyair Wright and Prophet Brown. But there’s nothing that says he can’t push his way onto the field. And if Tuesday’s practice is only the beginning of what he can do at cornerback, Jackson might be on track to see the field sooner rather than later in his USC career.
“We’re excited,” Orlando said. “I can tell you this. I’m really, really excited about him and when Donte gets a chance to really show him the finer parts of the position, I think he’s going to be damn good.”