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USC’s 2020 NFL Draft: Some good, some bad, and looking ahead to 2021

The final number for the 2020 NFL Draft are in and there are positives and negatives that can be taken from USC’s performance over the three days of selections.

First, the good news.

Congratulations are in order for Austin Jackson and Michael Pittman, as they were the two Trojans selected in this year’s NFL Draft.

Jackson went in the first round, No. 18 overall, to the Miami Dolphins. That’s a great result for Jackson and for USC. There was some thought that a tough showing against Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa might hurt Jackson in the draft, but the big left tackle performed very well at the NFL Combine and showed enough on film and in the interview process that he was seen as a near lock to go in the first round.

This was big news for USC as well. The Trojans entered this draft tied with Ohio State for the most first-round selections of all time. The Buckeyes have come on like a freight train of late in that race, as Ohio State has now produced multiple first-round picks in five straight years. USC, on the other hand, had just four first-round picks combined in the 2013-2019 drafts and didn’t produce a first or second rounder last year.

As always, there is a direct line drawn from the NFL Draft to recruiting, and the big winners of the draft can often use that quickly on the recruiting trail.

For USC, it’s clear the Trojans have a renewed focus on recruiting the offensive line, as USC brought in just four total high school offensive linemen in the 2018 and 2019 recruiting classes. The Trojans signed six last season, though just one was rated as a four-star recruit.

Having Jackson go in the first round should give offensive line coach Tim Drevno some ammunition on the recruiting trail, and something that could ease some of the negative recruiting material that opposing programs could use with the Trojans not being able to turn grad transfer offensive tackle Drew Richmond into a drafted prospect.

It should also provide the coaches a major talking point in any situation where offensive linemen could be questioning their potential path to the NFL out of an Air Raid system.

Pittman, at No. 34 overall and the second pick of the second round, likely went a lot closer to the first round than many believed possible at the start of his senior season. And still, there was likely just a tiny bit of disappointment that he slid out of that first round, as he was one of the big risers heading into the draft. He tested incredibly well for his size and became a hot commodity in what was an absolutely loaded wide receiver draft.

As is the case with Jackson, simply having a high draft pick like this is a positive for the Trojans. But Pittman putting up the numbers he did this season and then becoming a high draft pick should help wide receivers coach Keary Colbert and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell on the recruiting trail, as Pittman is another local prospect who came to USC, put up monster numbers and left as a second-round pick. Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, Juju Smith-Schuster and now Pittman are all names that still resonate with recruits and should help the Trojans continue to load up at that position.

And now, the bad news, and the numbers are worrisome.

USC had just two players taken in this draft. That’s the first time the Trojans have heard just two names called since the 2002 draft, when cornerbacks Kris Richard and Chris Cash were selected.

According to Yahoo! Sports, this was the first draft in the common era, which dates back to 1967, that USC did not have at least one defensive player selected. USC cut several streaks close in 1998, when cornerback Brian Kelly was the only Trojan drafted, but he carried on the streak of defensive players drafted. In this draft, linebacker John Houston Jr. and defensive end Christian Rector were the only two defenders with a chance to hear their named called. Houston eventually signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted free agent, while Rector has yet to sign anywhere.

The two draftees mean that USC has had just 10 players selected, combined, over the past three drafts. That ties the fewest number of drafted players in a three-year span in USC history. The Trojans have produced three-year runs of 10 drafted players several times before, but have never dipped below that number.

And with USC’s two selections, combined with Notre Dame’s six, the Fighting Irish and Trojans now both claim 511 total draft picks all-time, which is ahead of the third place program by a mile, but that was a record USC held on its own for some time. Notre Dame closed to 486-485 following the 2014 draft, when eight Notre Dame players were selected to three USC players.

Of course, there are different counts depending on what source you use, and Notre Dame continues to count multiple “picks” who are the same player drafted multiple times. But regardless, this draft allows Notre Dame to run with the narrative that no program has produced more draft picks than them.

This draft also allows Pac-12 rivals to gain some recruiting momentum against USC, as the Trojans’ 10 draft picks over the past three years ranks just tied for fourth in the conference. Washington leads the Pac-12 with 15 selections over that span (despite a horrible showing in 2020), while Utah leads the Pac-12 South with 13 draft picks (including seven in 2020). Stanford sits at 11, and USC is tied with Oregon at 10.

Spinning this forward, this absolutely looks like it could be a footnote to a potentially very good draft year in 2021. Now, the difference between what would constitute a very good year for USC and what LSU just did — five first-round picks and tying records with 10 picks in the first three rounds and 14 overall draft picks — is fairly large, and that’s a gap the Trojans will need to continue to close if they are realistically going to be playing for national championships in the near future.

But it wouldn’t be a shock to see multiple USC players go in the first round next year, and at least half a dozen players drafted.

Offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker likely would have been drafted had he elected to come out early this season. If he does make the move to left tackle and performs well there, there is no reason to think he won’t follow in Austin Jackson’s path and become a first-round pick. Vera-Tucker was regarded as USC’s best offensive lineman in 2019, and if he can master the move to left tackle, that will make him much more of a priority for NFL teams.

USC defensive tackle Jay Tufele also tested the waters a bit in terms of looking into declaring for the NFL Draft. He’ll be back at USC and could have another big year for the Trojans. While Tufele didn’t have a massive year statistically, with 4.5 sacks and 38 tackles, he was named to the All-Pac 12 first team, which shows how he is regarded by opposing coaches.

Safety Talanoa Hufanga is someone who could explore leaving early after his third year at USC. The history of shoulder injuries will absolutely follow Hufanga, even if he can manage to stay healthy this season, but Hufanga is a special, instinctual player, and someone NFL defensive coordinators would be able to use in a variety of ways at the safety position. A potential first round grade could come down to how well he tests, as the NFL is showing more and more how much it values pure speed at certain positions in the first round.

Those three have already been listed as first round selections in some of the early 2021 mock drafts floating around following the conclusion of the 2020 draft.

Beyond those three — who would all potentially leave with one year of eligibility remaining — it’s difficult to provide any sure-thing first rounders (or even sure-thing draft picks based on how players can fluctuate on NFL radars based on production, injuries or measurables), but wide receiver Tyler Vaughns, running backs Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr, tight ends Daniel Imatorbhebhe and Josh Falo, offensive lineman Liam Jimmons and defensive linemen Brandon Pili and Caleb Tremblay would seem to be draftable options in the senior class.

There are plenty of asterisks that belong attached to those players at this point however. Malepeai, Carr, Imatorbhebhe and Falo have some injury histories and a lack of season-long production that would make them sure things. Jimmons’ inclusion on that list is based on projection, but he’s been solid when he’s gotten time and has the physical ability to become a key part of the offensive line this year and potentially warrant a late-round pick. The same is true of Tremblay at defensive end, and Pili if he can perform consistently this season in a new defensive scheme. Getting all 11 drafted is certainly a longshot at this point, but that’s now up to the players themselves and the USC coaches to get them to a point where they can be selected.

Added to that group of potential early entries would be wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu, linebacker Palaie Gaoteote and cornerback Olaijah Griffin. Though, while all might test well, it would likely take really impressive seasons for any to be considered as a first or second-day draft selection.

Erik McKinney
Erik McKinney

Erik McKinney began writing for WeAreSC in 2004, during his junior year at USC, covering the Trojans football team and recruiting. He then moved on to ESPN.com in 2011, where he served as the West Region recruiting reporter and then the Pac-12 recruiting reporter. He took over as publisher of WeAreSC in January, 2019.

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