USC jack-of-all-trades Adoree’ Jackson’s Heisman candidacy became a thing shortly after the 2014 Holiday Bowl. In the Trojans’ defeat of Nebraska, the lightning bug from Belleville, Illinois, scored touchdowns of 98 yards on a kickoff return, and 71 yards on a shovel pass from quarterback Cody Kessler.
Then-USC head coach Steve Sarkisian didn’t shy away from making the comparison to Charles Woodson, the only defensive player to ever win college football’s top individual honor.
I reference Jackson’s big night almost two years ago because it stands as the quintessential Heisman highlight reel from his USC career. Likewise, the Woodson comparison bears mention up front, because Woodson’s template is the only one belonging to defensive players pursuing the trophy. It’s a template Jackson fits.
However, easily overlooked are Jackson’s day-to-day contributions to the Trojans.
Through his first two seasons at USC, Jackson established himself as one of the Pac-12’s best defensive backs. Statistics don’t bear it out in such a way that Heisman voters would feel compelled to cast ballots for him; however, they should.
His 35 tackles and a lone interception in 2015 were the byproducts of opposing quarterbacks throwing away from Jackson’s side of the field. The same kind of game-changing ability that makes Jackson so exciting on special teams, or as an offensive option, looms on the defensive end.
To wit, Jackson’s lone pick in 2015 went for a touchdown. In 2014, his first career takeaway came on a goal-line play at Utah, in which Jackson literally ripped the ball away to prevent a Ute score.
His big-play potential doesn’t stop when Jackson’s on his primary side of the ball. The only difference is that USC’s able to control getting him opportunities elsewhere.
Clancy Pendergast’s return as defensive coordinator should change that. Pendergast oversees a 52-base formation, reliant on an aggressive approach up front to force the issue.
The Trojans’ previous defensive coordinator, Justin Wilcox, was a frequent target of criticism for his limited use of the blitz. A heightened emphasis on pressure should push quarterbacks to get rid of the ball more quickly, resulting in more playmaking chances for Jackson at his natural position.
Jackson can’t wait.
“As defensive back, that’s what you want: A lot of aggressiveness, a lot of man-to-man,” he said. “Go man-to-man on an island with the best receivers. I’m excited to be there as part of that defense.”
He’ll get one such opportunity to go head-to-head with a top-flight receiver right out of the gate. The Trojans see Alabama on Saturday in Arlington, and the Crimson Tide bring standout sophomore Calvin Ridley to JerryWorld. Ridley’s the latest Lane Kiffin-coached pass-catcher to be heavily targeted. Last year he grabbed 26 more receptions than the next-most active member of the Crimson Tide, and 51 more than the number-three man.
With Jackson’s Heisman bona fides already established, albeit primarily on offense and special teams, a standout performance against Ridley on Saturday should direct more attention to his defense. That would round out a complete package for the do-everything Trojan, whose impact in the other two phases remain an X-factor.
Head coach Clay Helton toyed with the idea of limiting Jackson’s use on offense, despite last year catching 27 passes to rank among the Trojans’ most productive pass-catchers. However, Helton and offensive coordinator Tee Martin are more likely to deploy Jackson in explosive-play situations and fewer every-down snaps, which would mark a change from a year ago.
In 2014, Jackson caught 17 fewer passes than in 2015, but scored one more touchdown. Finding the right kind of balance this year, combined with a place in the defense more conducive to attractive stats, should position Jackson for a run to join Woodson’s exclusive club.