As we move closer to spring ball, WeAreSC will break down the 15 things we’re most looking forward to watching during those 15 practices that kick off the 2020 season. Next up, we look at super sophomore-to-be Drake Jackson and the USC defensive line.
Jackson’s 5.5 sacks in 2019 were the most for USC and would have been the most for any Texas defensive lineman as well. He was terrific as a true freshman and could have a chance to play his way into the discussion for Pac-12 Defensive Lineman of the Year this season. But a lot of that depends on how he transitions into USC’s new defense, led by defensive coordinator Todd Orlando.
As mentioned above, Jackson would have led Texas’ defensive linemen with his 5.5 sacks in 2019. The Longhorns’ defensive line was led by Ta’Quon Graham’s 3.5 sacks last season, as Texas had just 27 as a team, and no player had more than five.
Jackson should have plenty of help from fellow returners Jay Tufele (42 tackles, 4.5 sacks last year) and Marlon Tuipulotu (46 tackles, 2 sacks), but those two seem likely to make a more seamless transition into Orlando’s 3-man front where the defensive linemen are pinched in tight. Tufele and Tuipulotu have operated as tackles their entire careers.
It’s Jackson’s potential position where questions arise. If he’s shifted inside, will that limit his pass rushing impact? Will starting closer to the quarterback make him more dangerous as a pass rusher? Does this defense allow Jackson to take a step forward after a very strong freshman season?
USC also has the ability to potentially get pretty creative, with Tufele, Tuipulotu and fellow big man Brandon Pili up front, with Jackson rushing from the outside. There were a few snaps where Jackson served as a standup linebacker last season, and as Orlando likes to bring pressure from the linebacker position, Jackson would seem to have the ability to be disguised there on occasion.
There is some depth developed last season that should be evident this spring, as Nick Figueroa and Caleb Tremblay saw action last season and should be heavy contributors this spring. And the three-down lineman set should work for defensive ends Connor Murphy and Jake Lichtenstein, both of whom would qualify as big defensive ends and should be comfortable sliding inside a bit.
True freshmen De’jon Benton and Stanley Ta’ufo’ou made a few plays during practices last season and they’ll team with Trevor Trout to form that next group of young interior defensive linemen. And behind them, early enrollee Kobe Pepe will be tested to see what kind of impact he might be able to make as a true freshman this season.
That really just leaves Jackson as the true pass rush threat on the outside, and the one player that Orlando might need to develop a scheme for if a move inside doesn’t seem to get the best out of him. Orlando has a reputation for being able to adjust scheme, and Jackson would seem to be one of those players that he would work to free up. How that happens will absolutely be something we’ll be watching for this spring.