Drake Jackson has a new job title, but no new responsibilities in his opinion.
The USC sophomore broke onto the scene last season, earning Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors with 11.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, and three pass-break-ups in 11 games at the defensive end.
But with the arrival of new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, Jackson was asked to take on a more hybrid role as an outside linebacker who often stays on the leash to get past the rush.
After two games, Jackson doesn’t feel like he’s being asked to do anything else, aside from the occasional backlash in the coverage. In fact, he feels that the new plan is liberating.
“I would say they just let me play more instead of thinking about something,” Jackson said in a Zoom press conference on Wednesday. “I like that even more, just let me play for free and do what I do.”
The season opener against Arizona State was relatively quiet by Jackson’s standards: three tackles, one for loss, no sacks. But even after having to sit out much of the second game to get an IV, Jackson impressed with his limited snaps.
He had a total of five tackles but two sacks. The first came in third in the third quarter, pushing Arizona down. The two sacks accounted for a total of 17 yards lost by the Wildcats.
But Jackson didn’t see the improved performance as a sign that he was more comfortable in his new role.
“I’d say it’s just a matter of me getting to the quarterback because sometimes you get there and they just throw it away,” Jackson said, pointing out that ASU QB Jayden Daniels was quick to release. “But this week I came home, and that’s about it.”
A clear difference for Jackson is the new weight he is playing this year. As a freshman, the 6-foot-4 Jackson weighed 275 pounds.
But for his new role, which requires more dexterity when falling back into cover, Jackson has lost 20 pounds. He says he feels “more nervous,” and he can see a difference in terms of getting over the edge quickly now.
“Last year, probably a bit tough,” Orlando said of Jackson. ‘For me he has really good vision. That’s probably the thing good players have that are not coachable. He can see everything, and he can adapt. ”
Sophomore cornerback Chris Steele has been called up for four personal fouls in the first two games of the season, keeping the USC defense on the field for extended periods of time.
It’s really the only nit to pick with Steele’s play this year, as teams tend not to throw in his direction. And Orlando doesn’t want Steele to change his approach to the game to avoid flags.
Instead, he wants to coach Steele on what the officials will be looking for, and make it clear to him that opposing coaches will try to make officials aware of Steele’s history pregame.
‘You’re just trying to show him what things are going to be called. You want guys to be aggressive. It is difficult. If you corner it too much and make it soft, you’ll never get it back, ”Orlando said. “So all we do now is be aggressive, but understand that if that head isn’t back to the football that’s going to be called, if you get a little too handy, that’s going to be called.”