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An early preview of the USC players who may be prominent in the 2020 NFL draft
As part of Hogs Haven’s pre-draft coverage, I have been previewing one team per week throughout the college football season. One of the biggest games this weekend will be when UCLA and USC battle for Los Angeles’ city championship.
The Trojans are just 12-11 over the past two seasons, injuries have forced them to start three different quarterbacks this season, and head coach Clay Helton has been on the hot seat ever since getting the job. So, why even pick the Trojans as a team to profile?
When ESPN did a piece called Position U: Which schools produce the most talent at each position, USC topped the list at both Quarterback (Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez, Sam Darnold) and Wide Receiver (JuJu Smith-Schuster, Mike Williams, Marqise Lee, Dwayne Jarrett).
They also ranked 4th at Linebacker, 6th at Offensive Line, 7th at Defensive Backs, and 9th at Defensive Line.
USC is among the all-time leaders in national championships (Tied 6th), All-Americans (Tied 4th), and Heisman winners (Tied 3rd). No college football program has had as many players drafted (506) or produced as many NFL Hall of Fame players (13) than the Trojans.
Regardless of their 7-4 record, USC has historically been a major contributor to the NFL draft, and even during lean times, they once again have multiple NFL draft prospects, including a couple of potential first round prospects.
This season, I watched condensed versions of the Stanford and Utah games, watched the the second half of the BYU game, the first half of the Colorado game, all of the Washington and Oregon games.
POTENTIAL FIRST ROUND PROSPECTS
#73 Austin Jackson (Jr.) LT 6-6 310.
Recently, Jackson has caught the eye of The Athletic’s Dane Brugler, who put Jackson at #23 overall, on his latest big board. Brugler explains “There is plenty of NFL buzz behind the scenes about USC’s left tackle. Jackson is very clean in his pass-sets, moving with bounce in his steps and with flexible hips to cut off edge speed. He handles himself very well in space due to his lower half, but he is quick to shoot his hands, reset and stay on time to handle counters. Although he needs to fine-tune the details of the position to strengthen his base mechanics and sustain skills, Jackson has all the necessary traits to develop into a top-32 pick and NFL starter.”
Pro Football Focus disagrees, as they rank Jackson just 94th overall in their own top-100.
Has NFL bloodlines: Grandfather Melvin Jackson was an OT at USC and was a 12th round pick by the Green Bay Packers in the 1976 NFL Draft.
After starting all 12 games last year, there were some concerns about Jackson’s availability this fall. Jackson was the USC player who donated bone marrow to his younger sister. According to ESPN, Jackson’s surgery lasted 3-plus hours, during which he had bone marrow extracted from his pelvic bone last summer. Here is the full story.
Ready to be inspired?
— Football Matters (@FootballMatters) August 8, 2019
When watching Jackson throughout this season, I really didn’t think I was watching a first round prospect, but I went back to concentrating on his match-ups against Utah’s Bradley Anae (led the Pac-12 with 8.0 sacks in 2018) and Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux (the top HS recruit in the 2019 class) and I am starting to buy in. I still need to watch the Notre Dame game, as they rotate three NFL prospects at defensive end.
POSSIBLE DAY TWO (ROUNDS 2-3) PROSPECTS
#78 Jay Tufele (rSo.) DE 6-3 305.
Another Trojan who has received some (faint) first round buzz has been Tufele. A former 4-star HS recruit, he redshirted during the 2017 season, but has played in all 22 of the Trojans’ game the past two seasons.
In 2018, he finished with 23 tackles, including 4.5 for loss, with 3 sacks, while earning a spot on several freshman All-American teams.
— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) December 7, 2018
This season, he’s gathered 34 tackles, including 17 solo, and 5 TFL, including 3.5 sack. He has experience all along the DL from a 0 technique out to a 5 technique.
The Trojans’ former defensive line coach, Kenechi Udeze (himself a former Trojan and first round draft pick in 2004) describes Tufele as “one of the greatest workers I’ve ever seen at his age.” Udeze also said “Tufele was a bright kid, respectful, very humble and just comes from a great family.”
Tufele is a very good athlete, with a good blend of power and lateral agility for his size. While he might not leave for the NFL with two seasons of eligibility remaining, he reminds me of a young Christian Wilkins.
#6 Michael Pittman Jr. (Sr.) WR 6-4 220.
Pittman is having an outstanding senior season. Currently, he is third nationally in both receptions (82) and receiving yards (1,118).
I first noticed Pittman back in 2017, when he had one particularly great contested catch over Colorado’s Isaiah Oliver (Rd2, 2018).
Pittman came to Los Angeles as a 4-star HS recruit, who was named a first team Parade All-American in 2015. Going into his senior season, Pittman had appeared in 35 games with 17 starts, and accumulated a total of 1,244 receiving yards in his first three seasons.
Has NFL bloodlines. Father Michael Pittman Sr. played in the NFL from 1998-2008.
On the Move the Sticks Podcast, co-host Daniel Jeremiah says Pittman’s role in the NFL will be similar to the Chargers’ Mike Williams. He didn’t see him as a high volume receiver in the NFL, but someone who can make contested catches down the field.
Pittman has experience at the X, Y and Z positions, but has primarily lined up as the outside receiver on the left side of the formation this season.
USC WR Michael Pittman Jr. (@MikePitt_Jr) 2019 Highlights
Pittman is a big strong WR who can Moss defenders & run right by them as well. Just throw it up to Pitt & there’s a good chance it’ll end with six #FightOn ✌️
— JustBombsProductions (@JBP_Official) October 29, 2019
Pittman has the desired size and body control to out muscle smaller defensive backs and could likely start at either an iso-X or as a “big slot” in the NFL. He is a good athlete with with long arms and strong hands, and presents a large catch radius. Once the ball is in his hands, he has the strength and physicality to break tackles and create yards after catch. He is an above average blocker and a good special teams player.
LIKELY DAY THREE (ROUNDS 4-7) PROSPECTS
#21 Tyler Vaughns (rJr.) WR 6-2 190.
With 809 yards receiving as a redshirt freshman, Vaughns was ahead of Pittman on the depth chart in 2017. He started 10 games, finishing with 57 receptions and 5 TDs, in what was Sam Darnold’s final season.
In 2018, he finished with 58 catches for 674 yards, and 6 TDs, while adding 19 punt returns for 199 yards (10.5 avg) with 1 TD.
USC WR Tyler Vaughns (@tswag03) Highlights
Vaughns is one of the smoothest route runners & he combines that with exceptional hands. With a new offensive scheme, expect Vaughns & other USC WRs to make a lot of noise next season #FightOn
— JustBombsProductions (@JBP_Official) June 16, 2019
Vaughns is smooth and elusive, with a knack for getting open and being in the right place. He works the sideline like a pro and has great hands. Going into the 2018 season, I really thought it was Vaughns, not Pittman that would be the next great USC receiver, but like former Trojans wideout Deontay Burnett (undrafted in 2018), he appears to be a somewhat average athlete for the position. Based on his size and skill, I think he falls somewhere between Tyler Boyd (Rd2, Bengals) and Rashard Higgins (Rd5, Browns).
#89 Christian Rector (rSr.) DE 6-4 270.
Along with Pittman and Vaughns, Rector is someone I expected to enter the 2019 NFL draft.
I first noticed Rector as a redshirt sophomore, when watching Rasheem Green in 2017, and he looked very impressive. He finished that sophomore season with 11.5 TFL and 7.5 sacks, while earning AP Midseason All-American second team honors.
Rector’s 2018 season was respectable (48 tackles, 9 TFL, 4.5 sacks, two pass deflections, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble. He made the 2018 AP All-Pac-12 second team) but it was a step back from his promising 2017 season. While injuries have been a factor (a broken right hand in October 2017. This season he sustained a high ankle sprain against Stanford, forcing him to miss the BYU game), he just never seemed to take his game to the next level.
This season, he has just 16 tackles, including two tackles for loss, with one sack on the season. He was ejected on a targeting call on the first drive of last weekend’s win over Cal.
If USC makes it to a bowl game, Rector will have appeared in almost 50 games. He has scheme and positional versatility, with experience at DE in a 3-4 and 4-3, as well as the OLB position in the 3-4.
#10 John Houston Jr. (rSr.) LB 6-3 220.
Houston came to Los Angeles as a 4-star recruit, who was named a first team Parade HS All-American in 2014. A three year starter, he has appeared in 48 games with 34 starts. Houston currently leads the team in total tackles (93), solo tackles (57), and is second in tackles for loss (6.5).
Over the past four seasons, Houston has lined up all over the formation in a variety of roles. While he has inside/outside versatility in a 4-3, he will be limited to ILB in a 3-4 base, where he might not have the size or strength to hold up against NFL blockers.
#53 Drew Richmond (rSr.) OT 6-5 316.
USC’s starting right tackle, Richmond is a graduate transfer from Tennessee. He has NFL size, and already had 25 starts in the SEC under his belt before coming to LA.
Coming out of high school, Rivals was the highest on Richmond, ranking him as as 5-star recruit and the nation’s 12th overall prospect (#2 offensive tackle). He made 11 combined starts at LT during his first two seasons at Tennessee before starting all 13 games on the right side in 2018.
A couple of wildcards could be the the Trojans’ top two running backs.
#29 Vavae Malepeai (rJr.) RB 6-0 220.
Even after missing the past five games, Malepeai remains USC’s leading rusher on the season with 406 yards and a team-high four rushing touchdowns. He also leads all USC running backs with 11 catches.
After injuring his left knee at the beginning of training camp, Malepeai had played hurt in all six games that he played, until it finally required surgery to “clean out” his knee.
As a runner, receiver, and blocker, Malepeai is considered the Trojans’ most complete running back and has also proved to be their most dangerous goal line option.
#7 Stephen Carr (Jr.) RB 6-0 210.
Rated as the third best running back and 20th overall recruit in the 247Sports Composite rankings, Carr was the crown jewel of USC’s 2017 class. As a true freshman, he burst onto the scene as a back-up to Ronald Jones in 2017. In his second career game, he had 119 yards on 11 carries (a 10.8 average) against Stanford and had the look of a future superstar. Strangely, nearly three seasons later, that game still remains his career high, as Carr has battled injuries and inconsistency throughout his young career.