As a deep pass soared toward his sideline, a trailing Domani Jackson quickly closed the gap between him and the Nevada receiver. As a former track phenom, Jackson’s straight-line speed was just one of many tantalizing tools that made him California’s most coveted cornerback prospect in recent memory. So by the time the ball reached its destination, the USC sophomore was in position to make a play.
But the pass, which was underthrown, slipped through his outstretched arms and somehow was corralled by Nevada’s Spencer Curtis, who made it inside the 10-yard line before Jackson finally tripped him up from behind.
“It happens,” Jackson said this week. “Not everyone is perfect.”
Through three games — and three resounding wins for USC — the 73-yard completion is perhaps the most disappointing play given up by the defense, which in many respects has been better than expected leading up to this weekend’s bye.
USC’s defensive line has provided consistent pressure. A deeper linebacker corps has weathered early injuries. The safeties, led by All-American Calen Bullock, have looked strong. But at cornerback, there still are concerns, chief among them a former five-star who has yet to find his footing as a starter.
“You can see the talent and you can see him improving rapidly and then he also has some moments there where you could tell that it’s been a while since he’s been out there playing,” coach Lincoln Riley said this week of Jackson. “He’s on a steep learning curve.”
The climb always was going to be steep. Jackson missed his final high school season because of a knee injury, then played just 45 snaps as a freshman. In July, he acknowledged he’d never had to learn defensive concepts or proper technique before joining USC’s defense, adding another obstacle to his development.
Still, in the lead-up to the season, USC’s coaches trumpeted his progress and opted to bet on his potential, tapping him as a starter while acknowledging it would take time for him to adjust.
“You talk about the potential and you see it and you couldn’t be more excited about the guy,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “But you have to weather it and you have to learn from it.”
The weathering process is ongoing. Jackson has been targeted 10 times, more than any other USC defender, and given up seven receptions, according to Pro Football Focus. His 140 yards given up rank fourth-most among Pac-12 corners.
Jackson improved last week against Stanford, giving up just one catch. But he also played less than either of the previous two games, ceding time to Arizona transfer Christian Roland-Wallace, who played 10 more snaps than any other USC defender — and 22 more than Jackson.
How that pecking order proceeds remains to be seen, but the experience of Roland-Wallace, who started the previous four seasons at Arizona, is a positive, Grinch said.
“That’s no fault of Domani’s,” he said. “Reps matter. Experience matters. If it didn’t, we’d never talk about it. So it’s a whole lot different being able to practice last fall, trying to steal some reps. It’s good to be full speed in fall camp. It’s a whole different level competing to make plays on Saturdays.”
The learning curve only gets more precipitous from here. Two of USC’s next three opponents, Colorado and Arizona, rank in the top 20 in passing offense. Two more opponents the Trojans face this season, Washington and Oregon, rank in the top seven.
Grinch knows USC needs more from its corners, including the other starter, Ceyair Wright. The coordinator bluntly acknowledged Tuesday that he was “real disappointed” with the secondary’s effort in the vertical passing game.
“An opposite-colored jersey behind you is never going to be a good thing,” Grinch said. “And then you can’t say, ‘It happens sometimes.’ Those things can’t happen. There’s a couple of clips of that, which was really disappointing.”
Jackson has tried to put that particularly glaring clip against Nevada behind him. As he settles further into his role, he’s trying to be patient. His reintegration into regular playing time, he acknowledged, is “just not going to come easy.”
“Our position is one of the toughest positions on the field,” he said Wednesday. “We can’t have a mental breakdown about one play. You just have to move on.”