USC standout linebacker Drake Jackson was named to the 2021 Butkus Award watch list, a group of the top 51 linebackers in college football.
Jackson burst onto the scene as a true freshman defensive end for the Trojans in 2019, leading USC with 5.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. With the arrival of defensive coordinator Todd Orlando that offseason, Jackson was moved to outside linebacker. He didn't take a major step forward in terms of production (he finished with two sacks, an interception and 5.5 tackles for loss), but he showed up and made game-changing plays seemingly every week.
Against Arizona State, Jackson forced an incompletion on the Sun Devils' final offensive play, sealing a USC win. Against Arizona, Jackson recorded two sacks, including one on the penultimate play of the game to help finish off a USC win. He recorded an interception against Utah. He was also in on two big fourth-quarter stops against UCLA to help the Trojans come back for a 43-38 win against the Bruins.
Jackson will shoulder a significant load for the USC defense this season. The Trojans lost impact players at several positions from the 2020 team, including defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu, cornerback Olaijah Griffin and safety Talanoa Hufanga. Jackson was in and out of the lineup a bit this spring, but when he was on the field and fully healthy, he was largely unblockable. If that's the case this fall, it'll be a huge plus for a USC defense that has some question marks up the middle. The Trojans lost Tuipulotu to the NFL, Brandon Pili to injury and Jay Toia to transfer and those are three big bodies who could have had major impacts at defensive tackle this season.
Jackson will draw plenty of interest and double teams from opposing offenses this season, so it'll be worth watching if he can defeat those on his own, or if the USC defensive coaches and other linemen can come up with ways to free him up to put consistent pressure on the quarterback.
Jackson is looking to become USC's second Butkus Award winner, joining Chris Claiborne, who won the award in 1998.