USC's Drake London missed an elite run in basketball to continue his rise in football

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Ryan Kartje
·4 min read
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USC wide receiver Drake London runs to the end zone on a 65-yard touchdown against UCLA on Dec. 12, 2020.
USC wide receiver Drake London runs to the end zone on a 65-yard touchdown against UCLA on Dec. 12, 2020, at the Rose Bowl. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

As USC charged to the Elite Eight last month, Drake London watched from afar, warding off pangs of nostalgia. He hadn’t played much basketball lately. Not since devoting himself full time to football in December. But now the sophomore wideout and former wing was feeling the weight of that bittersweet breakup with basketball, his first love. It was hard not to wonder what might’ve been.

“There’s a part of me that, I wouldn’t say regrets, but definitely misses it,” London said. “But I think I made the right decision.”

No one is doubting that as spring football settles in at USC. With Amon-ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns off to the NFL, London is now the undisputed leader of USC’s receiving corps, a fact that should’ve been abundantly clear, even before receivers coach Keary Colbert reiterated it multiple times Tuesday.

“He’s had a great two seasons and really excited about his third year and his growth,” Colbert said ahead of USC’s fourth spring practice. "Honestly, this is the first time he’s had a true offseason, strictly football. You can kind of tell. I feel like his body is changing. With continued reps and time, he’s going to continue to dominate at the position and just become a force in college football.”

Even with St. Brown and Vaughns ahead of him in the pecking order, London caught 33 passes for 502 yards and three touchdowns last season, earning a place on the All-Pac-12 second team. In their absence, those opportunities should increase exponentially.

They won’t solely come in the slot, either. After two seasons of lining up primarily on the inside to cater to USC’s other top receivers, London has shifted outside at times during spring practice, “so he can check all the boxes for a complete wide receiver,” Colbert said.

London may still slide back inside this fall, Colbert clarified. But the point is to put USC’s top receiver in the best possible position to make plays and exploit matchups, wherever that may be. And there’s no disputing who the top dog is at this point.

“His first couple years, he played a lot on the inside because of [Michael] Pittman [Jr.] and Amon-ra and Tyler Vaughns,” Colbert said. “That’s just the way it worked out, trying to get our best four on the field, that he was on the inside. And Drake owned it. He was head and shoulders better on the inside. But we’ve talked about it more this season, just wanting to get him experience on the outside as well.

“Honestly, he’s just as good inside or outside. He can do it all.”

Where the rest of USC’s receivers might fit alongside London is uncertain. Redshirt freshman Bru McCoy has been slowed this spring by a nagging hamstring injury, but is expected to slot into the other outside receiver spot. After that, it’s anyone’s guess who will emerge from an especially deep rotation.

K.D. Nixon transferred to USC in the offseason after four years at Colorado, and his experience should help him earn an early role. The 5-foot-8, 190-pound wideout has played at both inside and outside receiver through one week of spring, endearing himself quickly to the rest of USC’s offense.

USC wide receiver Drake London makes a fourth-quarter touchdown catch.
USC wide receiver Drake London makes a fourth-quarter touchdown catch against Arizona State on Nov. 7, 2020 at the Coliseum. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“Aside from just his playing experience, he brings an energy,” Colbert said. “Everybody loves him on the team and in the room. He’s a vet, man.”

Gary Bryant Jr. doesn’t bring the same experience — he had just seven catches as a freshman last season — but his progress, with a full offseason under his belt, has been encouraging to Colbert.

“He was a great player coming in, but with any freshman, there’s a slight transition from learning the plays to playing fast to having that confidence,” Colbert said. “He knows what he’s doing and what’s expected of him.”

Plenty of question marks remain beyond that. Kyle Ford is still working his way back from a second season-ending knee injury. Munir McClain is still suspended. And Memphis transfer Tahj Washington won’t arrive until the fall, along with first-year wideouts Kyron Ware-Hudson and Joseph Manjack.

One incoming freshman has already turned heads. Michael Jackson III, an early enrollee, was earning early plaudits from USC coaches during winter workouts before he announced his arrival to everyone else with a one-handed, highlight-reel grab in tight coverage last Thursday.

“I’m excited about him and what he brings to the room,” Colbert said of Jackson III. “Honestly, I think he’s had one of the better offseason conditioning programs. Just seeing that kid work, from running and lifting, he’s very serious. He’s doing well for himself, and I think it’s great he’s here early.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.