Last August when Adoree' Jackson moved over to practice solely with the USC offense for the first time, he produced the single greatest practice at Howard Jones Field since a certain No. 5 was roaming the shadows of Dedeaux Field.
Jackson zigged, zagged, darted and dashed his way to big play after touchdown after jaw dropper. It looked like Jackson was playing against a high school junior varsity team. He scored in seemingly every manner from a leaping grab to a screen pass that featured multiple defenders diving and missing. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound bundle of elite athleticism and a wide smile nearly as impressive even took a carry up the middle for a 5-yard rushing touchdown.
It was eye-popping and the ultimate temptation for USC’s offensive coaches. When Jackson is on offense, all eyes are on the field. His fellow defenders pause from their sideline studies and discussion to watch and see what happens. Everyone expects something special.
“Something is going to happen and it's 98 percent chance good,” offensive lineman Zach Banner said. “You have to give the 2 percent chance because he's a human.”
“He's a very dynamic player,” said Cal defensive lineman DeVante Wilson, who started his collegiate career at USC. “He's shifty, very explosive. He's tough to contain. He'll make you miss. He'll outrun you.”
Jackson’s ability to take any given play the distance makes him too valuable to restrict him from participating on offense, defense and special teams, yet that’s what the Trojans are going to strive for in Clay Helton’s first season as head coach.
“We've sat down and visited about it a bunch, Adoree' and I have,” Helton said. “You've got to look at the team aspect. What's our weakest point probably going in? It's our defensive front.
“How do you help a defensive front? You load the box. You play man coverage. Who does that put more pressure on? It puts more pressure on the defensive backs. So I really feel for Adoree' to become what I think he is, one of the best DBs in the country. I really want his primary focus going into training camp, to work the defensive back position.”
While it isn’t being ruled out that Jackson will play some offense and still be the team’s primary returner, his role will focus primarily on being one of the nation’s best…at defensive back — something even Jackson admits didn’t happen last season.
“We’re stacked and loaded at receiver, so I really don’t need to be out there starting on both sides,” Jackson said, noting that NFL teams are looking for receivers that are 6-foot-6 and above while he is only 5-foot-11 — a height that produces very few impact pass catchers. “If [Helton] needs me, I’ll go out there for sure and get a couple of plays in. Other than that, I talked to him about being in the role of Charles Woodson.”
In 1997, Woodson won the Heisman Trophy with a combination of lockdown cornerback play, electric returns and an occasional appearance as a receiver for Michigan. Jackson still has aspirations of becoming a Heisman winner. To do so, he would join Woodson as only the second primarily defensive player to win the award in the last 60 years.
Jackson doesn’t like to compare himself to anyone else because “everybody does something different and unique,” but he did admit that he tries to imitate and take little pieces of a few players’ games. Along with Woodson’s three-way efforts, Jackson also watches how Patrick Petersen, Tyrann Mathieu and Deion Sanders were able to make an impact at defensive back and in the return game.
To follow in the footsteps of that foursome, Jackson is going to have to be locked in on the defensive side and that starts with learning a new playbook under defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Jackson missed the last seven months of football as he chased his dreams of making the Olympic team in the long jump. He made the national finals before ultimately finishing tenth after jumping 25 feet, 8.25 inches. He still has Olympic aspirations, saying he will attempt to qualify for the 2020 Games in four years. He also wants a shot at the world track championships next year.
If he has a Charles Woodson-esque season, Jackson may be spending the spring preparing for the NFL Draft instead of any track events. Whether he makes the transition back to track next spring could depend on how quickly he can flip the switch and get back in football shape. Jackson weighed 180 pounds during the track season, but said he will play football between 185-190 pounds. Along with gaining weight, he has to refocus his weight training regiment for football and get ready for lateral movements.
“I’m right back into football. My transition is fine,” Jackson said. “I’ve been playing three, four different sports every time going back-to-back, even at Serra I went from basketball to football to track, so my transition, I’m back into football, 100 percent football.”
After the Olympic trials ended, he began the transition going in to pump out his first football lift the Monday after track ended. Unlike some of his fellow defenders, Jackson wasn’t around for Pendergast’s last stint at USC. Instead, he now has to begin learning Pendergast’s system.
“I'm new, so it's like I'm a freshman all over again,” Jackson said. “I’ve been gone for seven months, so I'm just having fun with it, soaking it all in and just getting ready to go.”
In the spring, Jackson stopped in to observe a couple of practices and throughout his time running track, he has been in conversation with the football coaching staff. He also has been picking the brains of his teammates. They were given iPads in the spring that had the playbook uploaded. Because of his track commitment, Jackson did not receive one.
That didn’t deter him.
Whenever he hung out with his fellow defensive backs, Jackson borrowed their iPads to try to catch up on his studying, hoping to be on the same page with the rest of the defense when fall camp opens.
“I feel real comfortable with it. I like Coach Pendergast’s aggressiveness. Being a defensive back, that’s what you want, aggressiveness with a lot of man-to-man situations to display your talent and show everybody that you can actually play man-to-man. You can go on an island and try to stay with the best receiver, so I’m excited to be there with Coach Clancy’s defense.
“It’s not much different. Just different concepts and terms that you’ve got to understand and realize that football is going to be football at the end of the day.”
“I’m just fired up. The new staff we have in, all the players looking forward to going into this season, and I’m ready just to play for my brothers and just to get ready to get this season going. I know it’s been a long road for me. I’ve been away from football for seven months. So I’ll finally be back. I’m excited for it.”