Football

Midseason update for USC’s NFL Draft hopefuls

An up-and-down start to the season for USC has changed the outlook for its various prospects.

A photo of Drake London celebrating a touchdown

Halfway through the regular season, inconsistency has been a major concern for USC football, which is not something that scouts at the next level want to see. From three consecutive big upsets at home to a pair of road routs, it’s hard to precisely estimate the NFL potential for the Trojans’ most promising players. Still, we are about six months away from the 2022 NFL Draft, and a lot of things can change during that span. Let’s take a look at where things stand for some notable players right now.

Drake London

The receiver has had a breakout start to his junior season as the main target for junior quarterback Kedon Slovis after the departure of teammates Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns to the NFL. I’ll just let these stats speak for themselves:

  • London leads the country in targets with 91 (16 more than anyone else).
  • He leads the country with 64 receptions (eight more than anyone else).
  • Ranks second with 832 receiving yards (just five behind Memphis’ Calvin Austin)
  • Ranks second with 36.8% team target share (UNC’s Josh Downs, 39.7%)
  • Tied for 21st with five receiving touchdowns, including this impressive one-handed catch

Something tells me a lot of NFL teams will want a guy who can make that type of play on Sundays next fall.

Pro Football Focus has London as the highest-graded college receiver so far this season with a 90.2 mark, and his 18 contested catches put him on pace to shatter the season-long record of 22 since the site began tracking the stat in 2017. It’s no secret that the former member of the USC men’s basketball team has the ability to outjump almost any opposing defender at 6-foot-5, and his route running has improved since last season as well. Drops have been an issue this season though, as London had seven through his first four games of 2021 after having none in six games last season.

ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. listed London as the fourth-best receiver in the 2022 class and the 20th overall prospect at the start of the season. In Kiper’s latest projections, London has been upgraded to the No. 3 receiver and No. 10 overall. If he keeps performing at the high level set in the first half, don’t be surprised if London is one of the first five names called next April.

Drake Jackson

In his second season at outside linebacker after playing defensive end as a freshman, the junior’s versatility to move between those two positions could help his case to be a first-round pick in 2022. After getting off to a rather slow start in his first four games, Jackson picked up two sacks and a fumble recovery in a huge game at Colorado. He did have this remarkable interception Week 1 against San José State, showcasing his awareness at the line of scrimmage against a screen pass.

Jackson can do a little bit of everything, from getting to the quarterback, to stopping the run, to dropping back into coverage when necessary. After back-to-back appearances on the All-Pac-12 Second Team, Jackson must continue to produce tackles in the backfield and develop his repertoire of pass rush moves throughout the rest of this season.

After debuting as Kiper’s 22nd overall prospect and No. 2 outside linebacker, Jackson has fallen to sixth at the position, though I will clarify that Kiper’s most recent rankings were published prior to his productive game against Colorado. Like fellow junior London, both Drakes seem very likely to declare for the draft a season early barring any major setbacks, with Jackson currently slated to go anywhere between the late first round and early third round.

Kedon Slovis

After replacing an injured JT Daniels as a freshman in 2019, Slovis rocketed into the national spotlight with 3,502 passing yards, 30 touchdown passes and a 71.9% completion rate. He was instantly tabbed as a potential No. 1 pick once he became draft eligible in 2022. However, Slovis hasn’t really lived up to those expectations in his next two seasons, as his completion percentage fell to 67% in last year’s shortened season and 64% in six games so far in 2021. His decision-making hasn’t progressed much either, which has shown in the 12 interceptions he has thrown in his last 12 games.

Due to his recent struggles, Slovis has fallen to No. 10 in Kiper’s recent quarterback rankings after beginning the season as a projected first-round pick for many experts. Unless he figures out those accuracy and decision-making issues before the end of the season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Slovis choose to spend another year at the collegiate level in order to improve his draft stock.

But that’s not as simple as it sounds. After Slovis departed due to a neck injury Week 3 at Washington State, freshman backup Jaxson Dart came in and dominated the Cougars with 391 passing yards and four touchdown passes as part of a huge second-half comeback. In fact, if not for a knee injury that sidelined him for a few weeks, Dart might’ve done exactly what Slovis did to Daniels two years earlier. So if Slovis does come back for another season at USC, he wouldn’t be guaranteed the starting job, a factor that will definitely influence his draft decision and put more pressure on him to perform in the second half of this season.

Isaiah Pola-Mao

In his third season as the Trojans’ starting free safety, the redshirt senior captain has struggled recently in coverage, allowing three touchdowns in the last two weeks. One of those lapses in coverage came on this flea-flicker at the end of the first half Saturday against Utah, as Pola-Mao (No. 21) bites too hard on the run fake and allows the receiver to blow by him on the seam route for an easy touchdown.

Still, Pola-Mao has the physical features, at 6-foot-4 with long arms and good genetics (his uncle is former USC safety and Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu), in addition to the talent, as evidenced by his 73 tackles and four interceptions back in 2019. He was also an All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention last season with five passes defended, three fumble recoveries and 2.5 tackles for loss to go along with another interception. NFL teams will like his range and tackling ability enough to make him a late-round pick in 2022.

Damon Johnson

You might not be familiar with this redshirt senior, despite this being his fifth season as a starter for USC. That’s because Damon Johnson is a long snapper, a position that doesn’t get much notoriety in the sport. And now you might be even more confused. Well, I’ll give you some background that might help explain why the Trojans’ long snapper is one of their top prospects. After all, special teams has been a main bright spot for USC this season with redshirt junior punter Ben Griffiths and sophomore kicker Parker Lewis having strong seasons.

Johnson has played in 49 games, making him one of the most experienced long snappers in the nation. He was one of three finalists for the Manelly Award for top long snapper in college football in 2021 and has already been named to the 2022 watchlist for the award. Interestingly, eight long snappers have been taken in the last three rounds of the last seven drafts, including two in 2021, one of which was last season’s Mannelly Award winner Thomas Fletcher from Alabama in the sixth round.

So, as the presumptive favorite for the 2021 Mannelly Award and Kiper’s top-ranked long snapper, it’s not crazy to think that Johnson has a good chance to become a late-round draft pick next April. It’s hard to find any long snapping stats, but from my own research, USC has not had any aborted snaps on kicks or punts so far this season. Given my newfound long snapping expertise through writing this article, I’ll say that’s a good sign for Johnson’s draft stock.