Greatness of Jackson may be gone soon

Nick Entin | Daily Trojan Bigger and better · Junior three-way player Adoree’ Jackson became USC’s all-time leader in kick return yards on Saturday against Cal. Jackson is projected to be a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft.

Nick Entin | Daily Trojan
Bigger and better · Junior three-way player Adoree’ Jackson became USC’s all-time leader in kick return yards on Saturday against Cal. Jackson is projected to be a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft.

It feels way too early to already be saying this. It’s just speculation at this point, and nothing about USC football is ever that predictable. Besides, you may even be staying in town over Thanksgiving break to watch the Trojans’ final home game against Notre Dame.

But this Saturday will likely be the last time most students get to see junior three-way star Adoree’ Jackson play in a Trojan uniform.

The ever youthful and energetic Jackson is now beyond the halfway point of his junior season. He has the talent and athleticism to be playing in the NFL right now, and I have to believe he will forgo his senior season to go pro. The nostalgia for me is already starting to set in.

I faintly remember covering Jackson when he was still in high school at Junipero Serra, a powerhouse Southern California team. He had four tackles, an interception returned for 25 yards, two punts returned for 110 yards and two catches for 26 yards when Serra defeated my high school, Harvard-Westlake, 35-8 in 2012 — his junior, my senior year.

When ’SC recruited Jackson, Serra had always been a steady source of talent for the USC football — think former USC wide receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, or the other eight Serra products currently on the team. Jackson was a five-star recruit, rated the best cornerback in his class and best overall player out of all of California.

Before Jackson committed, USC had offered a scholarship and gotten a commitment from his teammate Jalen Greene, Serra’s star dual-threat star quarterback. It seemed like a bizarre move — USC had only ever really recruited pocket passers, and Greene seemed to fit much better with a spread offense. But there was some speculation that it was all part of the effort to incentivize Jackson to join Greene — who has since converted to a wide receiver here — and the other Serra graduates.

Sure enough, Jackson signed here on National Signing Day, passing up on offers from LSU, Florida, UCLA and pretty much every other school in the country.

The challenge for the coaching staff was to get him on the field as often as possible without wearing him out. He’s the first player to start a game on offense and defense since USC started keeping records on this in the ‘60s. Last year, he was in on 657 plays on defense, 157 plays on offense and 157 plays on special teams.

He’s had plenty of exciting moments as a receiver on offense. Three of his 10 catches went for touchdowns his freshman year. He took a flat route 80 yards for a score at Arizona State last year; he took a screen pass 83 yards for a score at Notre Dame.

He’s been a stalwart on defense since becoming a starter as a true freshman. It’s easy to forget that his primary position is still cornerback given how exciting he is with the ball. But what makes him such a valuable part of the team, and a strong NFL prospect, is how well he can stop opponents from getting the ball. His best work on defense is the kind of stuff that doesn’t show up on the highlight reel or stat sheet, but even then, he still has his memorable defensive plays, like taking back a pick-six at Cal last year.

But easily, the most fun part of Jackson’s game is his kick returning. There’s no better way to start off a game than having him set up deep to return an opening kick. After every defensive stop, I’m almost as excited to see him get a chance on a punt as I am to see the offense get the ball.

It’s hard to even keep track of every kick he’s taken all the way. He’s gone the whole 100 yards for touchdown on kickoffs at Utah twice — once in 2014 and once again to cue some major déjà vu this year. There was the punt that bounced all the way to our 21-yard line that Jackson picked up and took 79 yards for a score against Utah State this year. There were the two short field punt return touchdowns he had last year — a 41-yard touchdown return at Oregon and a 42-yard return to take the lead just before the half against UCLA. And of course, there was his touchdown to put ’SC on the board in the 2014 Holiday Bowl against Nebraska, when he took a kickoff 98 yards for the score, and capped off the return with a front flip. 

I’ve gotten to the point where the kicks away from Jackson resonate almost as much as the ones to him. When a punt by Arizona’s Josh Pollack sailed over Jackson’s head and bounced all the way for a 67-yard touchback three weeks ago, I felt like I had been cheated after driving 500 miles to see the game. When Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre started calling for Buffs kicker Chris Graham to start chipping short kickoffs away from Jackson in the second half, the wistful realization finally hit me — teams probably should, and probably will, start kicking away from such a dangerous return man going forward.

Even if they do, Jackson earned a well-deserved distinction last week against Cal. With his 56 return yards Thursday, Jackson became USC’s all-time leader in kick return yards with 1,779. The previous record of 1,723 yards held by Curtis Conway had stood since 1992.

There is of course the possibility that he stays for his final season, but it’s not like he has anything left to prove to NFL scouts. Fox Sports listed him as one of the seven “guaranteed” first round picks in the 2017 NFL Draft, before this season even started. I’d be thrilled to see him come back, but I’ll be just as excited to see him debut in the League. 

Maybe the most touching moment we’ve seen from this whole season was Jackson’s postgame interview after the Utah State game with his mother, who had been battling cancer last year.

“I wasn’t able to come to … games last year,” an emotional Vianca Jackson told reporters. “But God, He saved me in four months. He gave me back to my baby, so I can see every game and I can be the proudest momma.”

I’m sure she’ll be even prouder when she gets the chance to see him play on Sundays. Luckily for us, though, we still get to watch him play in the Coliseum at least one more time.   

 Luke Holthouse is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development and print and digital journalism. His column, “Holthouse Party,” runs on Wednesday.