The Pac-12 football season is well underway, and to me, it seems as if there are still some players and teams who are getting adjusted. Some have adjusted quickly while others are seemingly still looking to gain their footing. Let’s look at some who could really help themselves by playing well this weekend.
Drake Jackson, EDGE, USC
Let’s start with the good. Drake Jackson is a very good athlete who demonstrates good agility, quickness, and length on the edge. His movement skills and his ability to rush or drop has draft prognosticators and front office personnel drooling at his potential. As the game evolves, players with Jackson’s athleticism are coveted. He has the ability to cover tight ends or get upfield as a pass rusher. However, the word you often hear mentioned with him is “potential.” To me that translates to “you haven’t put it on tape consistently enough” up to this point.
It is now 2021 and if you remove the Arizona game in 2020, Jackson hasn’t recorded a sack since 2019. Not to mention Arizona is consistently one of the worst teams in the conference. In fact, Arizona hasn’t had an offensive lineman drafted since 2009, when Eben Britton was taken in the second round and eventually flamed out in the NFL.
The season is only two weeks in and USC has played San Jose State and Stanford. Although he recorded an impressive interception against SJSU, not only has he not recorded a sack, but he only has three solo tackles on the year. He also looks painfully thin on tape, which invites more questions about how effective he'll be in the run game in the NFL. If he cannot get home as a pass rusher, he needs to learn to be more influential in other aspects of the game.
Jaxson Kirkland, OT, Washington
In 2020, Kirkland moved from guard to start his very first year at tackle. He impressed enough that season to put his name in the conversation to be picked on day one of the 2022 draft. Scouts will love his length on the perimeter, his base, and good footwork on the edge. He’s athletic enough to reach a defensive end in a 7-technique, showing the type of range and lateral agility that will certainly have his name called early in the draft. However, last week against Michigan, projected first-round draft pick Aidan Hutchinson exposed some of Kirkland's weaknesses.
For starters, Kirkland could afford to gain more mass and strength in his lower body. Hutchinson is a relentless, high-effort rusher who has a good speed-to-power rush. He may have exposed some potential anchor issues with Kirkland. I wouldn’t say Kirkland had a bad game—he had several pancakes and showed the type of fluidity and redirect quickness that NFL teams will love—but getting stronger will help him become more effective at the point of attack and also anchor better against power rushers.
California Golden Bears
Let me begin by saying Justin Wilcox has done an outstanding job with the program. He led the program to back-to-back winning seasons and bowl games in 2018 and 2019. He is in his fifth year as head coach and Cal has beaten a top-20 team in each of his four seasons as head coach. What’s even more impressive is that he has compiled a perfect 9-0 non-conference record heading into the season.
What could possibly go wrong as Cal faced Nevada in the opening game with a quarterback (Carson Strong) who many believe could be an early draft pick in 2022? The same Strong who grew up going to Cal football games and envisioned himself playing there? Cal went up early (14-0) but faded late and lost the game at home 17-22. The following week, they played TCU. TCU squeaked out a hard-fought win 34-32, spoiling an impressive outing by Chase Garbers.
What’s concerning is that they narrowly lost both games by one score. Momentum is very important for a team, especially with younger players. However, I believe Wilcox will get the guys back on the right track this week against Sacramento State. Sac. State comes in with a high-powered offense lead by triggerman Asher O'Hara and one of my former coaches, former Cal great Troy Taylor. “TT” will certainly have his players ready for the challenge as little brother Sac. State will look to upset the big brother Golden Bears this Saturday.