Compton’s Finest: Drake Jackson, a quarterback’s nightmare

Drake Jackson in three different frames with a red background.
(Photos by Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan, Design by Iris Leung | Daily Trojan)

After USC’s first game of the 2021 season, junior outside linebacker Drake Jackson had plenty to celebrate. 

The Trojans’ defense gave up only seven points and forced two turnovers — Jackson himself had an impressive interception. However, in Jackson’s post-game interview, the focus wasn’t on his performance or what the team did but more on the impact his family has on him.

“I was just more thinking about my grandma,” Jackson said. “I was happy I did that for her because it’s my first game without her.”

Family means the world to Jackson — a soft spot for the 6-foot-4, 250-pound linebacker. He carries them everywhere on his journey to prove himself. More specifically, he carries them with a tattoo on his right forearm that says: “Compton,” Jackson’s hometown. 

“Coming from Compton, a lot of people don’t make it out,” Jackson said. “I [got to] put on for my city … I got to show that Compton is real.” 

The Birth Certificate 

When a child is born, one of the parents’ first duties is to fill out the birth certificate. Many decide to go simple by including a first and last name. 

But Dennis Jackson had a bigger idea. A lifelong USC fan, he took his son’s birth certificate and wrote: ​​“Drake Jackson, University of Southern California, outside linebacker, 265 pounds.”

“When I was being born, my dad said, manifested [and] praised to God that I go to USC,” Jackson said. “Now for me to be in my last year where I really feel like the guy and weigh how much he said, it’s just crazy to me how everything really works out.”

The nurses didn’t allow the birth certificate to include that information, but Dennis spoke it into existence. 

The process of getting to this moment started early. Family played a key role for Jackson as he would often work out with his father when growing up. Dennis was the first coach Jackson had and frequently put him against the older kids in little league. 

Jackson credits these early experiences to making his transition to USC as smooth as possible. 

“When I come to college, and I’m at any grade, there’s gonna be people older than me, but it’s still the same,” Jackson said. “It’s just like little league.” 

Always a soft-spoken character, Jackson let his game do the talking. It was a specific game during his sophomore year in high school where everything changed for Jackson. 

Centennial High School in Corona, Calif. — where Jackson attended, was playing the prominent IMG Academy from Florida, a school known for its football talent. It was his first game as a starter, and Jackson didn’t live up to expectations: “I didn’t really know what to do in the first half,” he said.

Jackson’s coach told him at halftime that his time was up; He’d been subbed out. 

“He’s like, ‘I’m gonna take you out; you’re hurting the team right now,’” Jackson said. “And I’m like, ‘Nah, just wait. You’ll see.’” 

In the next half, Jackson ended up with two sacks, making his presence felt on the defensive line. It was the start of a run that put him on the map. 

Two seasons later, Jackson became a four-star recruit and the Press-Enterprise’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2018. The Trojans weren’t the only ones coming after him aggressively as Jackson made official visits to Oregon, Illinois, Washington and Arizona State. 

Much to his father’s delight, Jackson ended up a Trojan.

USC and “The Freak”

His freshman year, Jackson was at the beach with his friends one day when a thought came into his head. It wasn’t really a normal one, but he thought he’d give it a shot. 

Since he was a kid with inconceivable athleticism, Jackson did backflips on trampolines. He would twirl around for fun and reach heights as high as his potential. Recently though, his friend had been teaching him the basics of doing a backflip on the ground. This time, it was a little different. 

“I was like, ‘Bro, I’ll try a backflip if you try a backflip,’ and he tried it and I ended up landing mine,” Jackson said. “From then on, it’s just been like riding a bike.”

People of Jackson’s size and stature usually aren’t supposed to be able to pull off backflips — especially while in the sand. They aren’t supposed to be moving as agile as he does.

It’s why he’s grown into the nickname: “Freak.” It’s something the people around him can attest to. 

“Nah, he’s a freak for sure,” said redshirt senior linebacker Micah Croom with a chuckle. “No doubt about it.”

It seems like Jackson does something every day that makes people ask how? 

Freshman defensive lineman Korey Foreman was a teammate of Jackson’s at Centennial. To this day, he still asks Jackson about the crazy moves he pulls off in practice, in awe at how he’s able to pull it off.

“He’s a freak of nature,” Foreman said. “It’s a blessing to be able to have someone like him with such talent on the sideline with me and on the defensive line with me.”

The combination of speed, size and strength Jackson carries is rare in and of itself. 

His love and passion for the game forge an amalgamation of talent and desire to keep learning — a common theme people closest to Jackson highlighted. 

“A lot of guys with talent, when they get to this level, [they] kind of don’t love football as much as they love the fans and everything that comes with it,” said defensive coordinator Vic So’oto. “But he loves football.” 

Athletes can get lazy and revert from working hard once they reach the satisfaction of being a Division I athlete. Jackson isn’t like your average Division I athlete though, he wants to keep learning. 

Jackson focuses on the weaknesses of the players he’s competing against and works on improving each aspect of his game to “get better than the next person,” a mindset instilled in him by his father.

“​​We’ve been doing that since I was a little kid,” Jackson said. “We’ve always just been getting to the spot, seeing who we got, playing my hardest and just going from there.”

The unsatisfied mindset and hard work have paid off.

So’oto added Jackson is a player with “natural athletic ability and God-given gifts.” And, when you watch him on the field, it’s evident. 

Jackson could be on one side of an offensive tackle before spinning off of them like a tornado to chase the quarterback down. A sack can result in a lion’s roar, and his dominant play continues throughout the game.

When it’s all said and done after the game though, Jackson’s mind reverts not to his performance but something more at home. 

All the nonpareil athletic abilities and football aside, family is simply the most important thing to Jackson. Almost everything in his life revolves around it, especially this season. 

Jackson has played through the first couple of weeks of the season with a heavy heart. Right before the Trojans’ first game, a close member of his family passed away — his grandmother.

It added extra motivation for him as he embarked on his final season playing collegiate football. 

“Everything’s for her at this point in time,” Jackson said. “This is the last year she would have got to see me before I take things further into the league … Since she didn’t get to see that, this is for her. I’m doing it for her.”

Jackson’s family has kept him in check through the years. His faith and relationship with this tightly-knit family never allow the pressures of football to overwhelm him. His unique skill and force as a player truly never alter his focus and mindset. Even with his freakish talent, he’s simply a humble giant. 

As for the NFL, Jackson’s not overthinking it — he knows the work he’s put in will pay off.

“You give it to God, you work. Stuff like this, you want to happen, and when it happens, it feels good. You want more,” he said. “Now, I’m grinding for more; it keeps me hungry.”