Column

In a lost season for USC, don’t lose sight of Drake London’s greatness

Despite the Trojans’ struggles, London’s dominance is reason enough to keep tuning in.

A photo of USC receiver Drake London in a white jersey, cardinal helmet and gold pants breaking a tackle against Notre Dame.

Among the looks on the faces of USC players sauntering off the field at Notre Dame Stadium following Saturday’s loss, one of them stood out as particularly hard to decipher.

That one belonged to Drake London.

Disappointment was the primary expression, sure, but that almost feels too easy an explanation. That one could apply to any of the faces, not just the one whose 15-reception, 171-yard performance is in no way responsible for the defeat.

But it wasn’t helplessness, either. London is too humble for that. Too humble to place the blame on his teammates (even in the form of a facial expression), too humble to ask himself what more he’s supposed to do, even when those on the outside may have that same inquiry.

Perhaps it was a look of resignation. Not resignation toward this season — London isn’t checked out — but resignation to the fact that his greatness and USC’s are on chronological paths that will never converge. Maybe London realized, in that moment, that USC will not compete with college football’s elite until well after his busiest work day shifts from Saturday to Sunday — not because of his departure, but simply because of circumstance.

Under that theory, it’s not that he wants it to be over, but that he wants it to be better. And perhaps he knows it won’t be — at least in any meaningful way.

London has been the best player on the field in each of USC’s seven games this season, and he’s only improving with each passing week. He leads FBS receivers in yards per game with 143.3, a 23.7-yard lead over No. 2. Four of his single-game receiving yard totals this season have exceeded his career-high from before 2021, and his 16 and 15 receptions the last two weeks were one and two away from tying the single-game USC record.

USC has a 3-4 record to show for it. That includes a 1-3 mark when London posts at least 160 yards, and it includes two losses in those two aforementioned outings that gave USC’s single-game receptions record a run for its money.

After the last one — the Notre Dame one — London was asked about the frustration of turning in a performance like he did and still coming up empty-handed. It’s a feeling that, through repetition, London knows all too well, given that it’s happened thrice this season. Still, and predictably, he wouldn’t bite.

“You know, just go back next week, and all you can do is try to capitalize on the next game,” London said. “You gotta take this one to the heart and come back stronger than ever, pretty much.”

It wasn’t feigned humility. It was just Drake London. He’s not even one to bask in his own spotlight when the moment perfectly accommodates it. Case in point: Following USC’s 37-14 win over Colorado in Week 5, morale was understandably high, and London had helped get it there with a 130-yard performance and a jaw-dropping one-handed touchdown grab.

After that game, London was asked whether he pays attention to the noise surrounding his Biletnikoff case, which at this point feels like it’s steamrolling toward inevitability.

“No. No. If God willing, I’m gonna let that fall into place, you know?” London said. “I’m just trying to get Ws out here and get some wins. So I’m not really getting into the hype or anything about that.”

Coming from anyone else, you might doubt it. You might think he’s just saying that, but that inside, he actually loves the attention. Coming from London, it was about as genuine as genuine can be.

And the answers should indicate how the star junior is approaching this season. He wants to win. Now. USC went a meager 8-4 in the regular season in his freshman year, then got smacked by Iowa in the Holiday Bowl. It went an exhilarating 5-0 in front of empty stadiums his sophomore year before a heartbreaking loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game rendered it fruitless. No bowl game followed.

He wants to win. Now. And this is his last chance to do it, because barring a decision that would pleasantly shock USC fans as much as it would dishearten NFL scouts, the athlete who once starred in two sports will be taking his talents to the highest level of one of them.

The problem? There are only two likely wins remaining on USC’s schedule (Arizona and Cal), and if the Trojans can’t squeeze out a third, they’ll wind up under .500 and out of a bowl game in London’s farewell season.

That very well might happen. London deserves to win, and he’s done everything he can to facilitate it, but it hasn’t happened, and it doesn’t look like things will turn around.

It’s perfectly reasonable to recognize that the season is lost, to acknowledge there’s little to play for from a postseason standpoint, because there is. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that we’re witnessing greatness nonetheless — greatness that’s worth tuning in to on a weekly basis and even filling the Coliseum for.

London has elevated himself from USC’s No. 4 option in his freshman season — behind Michael Pittman Jr., Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns — to arguably the best college receiver among that group. All-but-certain first round NFL Draft status might cement that argument.

And it couldn’t be happening to a better person. Graham Harrell is typically soft-spoken and short with his words, but following the win over Colorado, USC’s offensive coordinator sounded like a proud father when speaking about London.

“I don’t think there’s enough good things I can say about Drake, to be honest with you,” Harrell said that day. “He takes care of his business off the field, in the classroom. He takes care of his body, he sleeps right, he eats right. He’s never getting into trouble. When he’s away from the facility, you’re never wondering, ‘What’s Drake doing? Is he gonna get in trouble? Am I gonna get a call about Drake?’ And when you have a kid that’s as talented as he is and takes care of business the right way, the way he does with everything, you’ve got a really special individual … Like I said, there’s not enough good things I can say about that kid, and I feel fortunate to have him.”

London’s relatively quiet demeanor was on display once again toward the end of the loss in South Bend. As time wound down, a dejected London sat alone on the end of the defensive side of USC’s bench to contemplate. Junior quarterback Kedon Slovis joined him.

“You know, that was just between me and him,” London said afterward. “We just exchanged a few words, and it was all positive stuff heading into next week. And that was pretty much it.”

Perhaps it’s for the best — all there’s left to do is look ahead. Change is coming to USC football. A new head coach will be here next season, and with that coach will come a cultural reset that this program has desperately needed for years.

Before that, though, the Trojans have a season to finish out, and the outlook isn’t great. Even if they win out (unlikely), they’ll still probably miss out on a Pac-12 Championship, instead winding up in some meaningless bowl game that fans will have a hard time getting fired up about. (The Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl at SoFi Stadium, anyone?) Large swaths of the fan base have converted anger into apathy and plan to take that approach into the season’s final five games — save for maybe a rivalry matchup with UCLA.

That’s completely justifiable. But don’t let that extend to the things Drake London does on college football fields every Saturday, because those things are truly remarkable. And soon enough, those things will be gone, on to bigger and better horizons.

Savor them while you still can. They won’t last forever.