The Trojans took to the turf Saturday at Cromwell Field for the annual Spring Showcase, giving the hundreds of fans in attendance and thousands more watching on TV a taste of what they can expect to see this upcoming football season.
In the past few years, it has become custom for USC not to run a true spring game anymore. Instead, it runs extended scrimmage sessions with alternating situations. While it’s a rather fruitless exercise to make projections for the season based on what happens on a Saturday in April, the showcase certainly provided moments of excitement and reasons to be optimistic in the fall.
All eyes were on offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s air-raid offense, and it didn’t disappoint. The effects of simplifying the offense were clear, with the quarterbacks making quick and efficient decisions and the offensive line moving with certainty.
All of the quarterbacks performed nicely on the day, with redshirt sophomore Jack Sears having the best showing of the group, making some nice connections down the field and doing well under pressure. The group only threw one interception on the day.
The receiver group had a nice all-around outing, from veterans to newcomers alike. Senior Michael Pittman, redshirt junior Tyler Vaughns and sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown were their usual selves, while rising sophomore Devon Williams bounced back from a rough start to the day with some nice grabs later on.
The star of the group had to be early-enrollee freshman John Jackson III, who’s been impressive all spring and did more of the same on the field Saturday. Jackson’s sturdy frame and refined route running make him a dangerous target, and he made a number of excellent catches throughout the day — his best being a toe-dragging sideline catch 20 yards downfield on a corner route. He’ll make a strong case to earn some playing time as the offseason continues.
Though most of the running backs’ work Saturday involved catching swing passes and taking routine carries, the group provided what was easily the day’s biggest offensive highlight, courtesy of Markese Stepp. The 230-pound rising sophomore is known for being a punishing battering ram with the rock in his hands, but on an early carry to the right, he made sure everyone in attendance knew that he had speed to burn as well.
Stepp jetted through the defense, beating every defender on the field and breaking an ankle tackle on the way to a 57-yard touchdown. Stepp has been a force all spring long. It wouldn’t be a massive surprise to see him as the Trojans’ lead back come fall.
As fun as the offense may have been at times, the undisputed star of the day was on the other side of the ball. Early-enrollee edge rusher Drake Jackson had a monstrous outing. At only 17, Jackson looks the part of a grown defensive end, pairing tremendous athleticism with his hulking frame. Head coach Clay Helton noted the same, comparing him to Trojan legend Leonard Williams.
“He reminds me a lot of Leonard … just a grown man as an 18-year-old,” Helton said.
Jackson found his way into the backfield all day, putting pressure on the quarterbacks and notching an impressive sack on a speed rush against the right tackle.
The moment of the day came when Jackson made a near supernatural play rushing Sears off the left edge. The play was a screen pass into the flat, designed to draw him in toward the quarterback only to have the ball popped to the running back over his head.
But Jackson had other plans. He sniffed out the play design immediately, baiting Sears into making the throw and within an instant doing the unthinkable; he stuck out his left arm, and with a single hand, plucked the ball out of the air, proceeding to run it back for a 39-yard pick-six.
That play encapsulated all the elements of Jackson’s game that could make him so special — the freak athleticism, the awareness and the natural feel for the game that allowed him to diagnose the play. This talent has been on display all throughout the spring in flashes, but none brighter than Saturday’s performance. It would be no surprise to see him find his way onto the field early and often in the season.