As Drake London lay writhing in pain on the Coliseum field last Saturday, clutching a fractured ankle that would prematurely end the star receiver’s last season at USC, the reaction of his fellow wideouts, many of whom were kneeling close by, was visceral. The injury felt like a gut punch that left an entire offense gasping for air.
“It really hurt in the moment,” sophomore Gary Bryant Jr. said.
“We all felt that,” added sophomore Tahj Washington.
Few, though, could understand what USC’s star receiver was going through quite like Kyle Ford. When the two receivers signed with USC as part of its 2019 class, Ford was the five-star recruit, a top-five in-state prospect presumably bound for stardom, while London barely cracked the nation’s top 250. But recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee forced Ford to sit out for most of his freshman season. In the meantime, London emerged as a star in the making.
That following summer, just as his opportunity neared, Ford tore his ACL again.
It’s been an uphill climb for Ford ever since. As his close friend emerged as a surefire All-American, Ford slowly worked his way back, taking advantage of whatever opportunities he could seize. He has just seven catches over four games this season. But as USC searches for ways to replace London heading into a critical road matchup with Arizona State, the former five-star receiver may wind up the offense’s most prominent beneficiary.
“I’m just hoping to fulfill everything Drake has been doing,” Ford said. “That’s like my best friend. I told him I’d carry it on for him.”
He won’t have to carry it alone. No one at USC is operating under the impression London, whose 88 catches still lead all Power Five receivers, can be replaced by a single receiver. A front-runner for the Biletnikoff Award given to the nation’s top wideout, London accounted for nearly 43 percent of USC’s passing yards before suffering his injury. It’s unlikely that any of USC’s receivers will match even half of London’s output by the end of this season.
But as the Trojans look ahead to life without London, who’s expected to be a first-round NFL draft pick next spring, Ford is the receiver who most closely resembles his skillset. Listed at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, he has the size to be a menace in the seam, where London’s star turn also first began.
“He can still move like a guy that’s 205 pounds,” USC interim coach Donte Williams said. “So just from a physicality standpoint whether it’s blocking or coming in out of a break. At the same time he can catch the deep ball. So just that in itself is a physical guy that’s out there playing wide receiver against a corner.”
That physicality sets him apart from USC’s other receivers atop the depth chart. Bryant Jr. is at his best stretching the field deep. Washington excels in space, where he can use his quick twitch on short and intermediate routes. Both had strong showings Saturday in London’s absence, but would be miscast as stand-ins for their 6-5 counterpart.
Ford, on the other hand, may be able to do a convincing enough impression.
“Honestly, I feel like I could come in and make an impact and take over that role pretty well,” Ford said. “I’m confident, for sure.”
That confidence has swelled in recent weeks, as the last lingering effects of his injuries continued to diminish. Ford said he feels as fast and twitchy now as he had at any point since his injury. His knee, he assures, is no longer an issue.
He’ll get every chance to prove that Saturday, when he’s expected to draw his first start on USC’s offense. After not seeing an offensive snap for three games, Ford’s playing time had been ramping up over the previous two weeks, anyway. London’s injury only accelerated that process.
The urgency has since heightened in the lead-up to the matchup with Arizona State. During a receivers meeting at the start of the week, assistant coach Keary Colbert made clear to the room that there would be plenty of opportunities down the stretch for them to prove themselves. The message wasn’t lost on any of USC’s receivers.
“Anyone on that field can be No. 1,” Bryant Jr. said.
How different that leading role will look without London remains to be seen, but the expectation is that Arizona State will lean heavily on man-to-man coverage, daring the Trojans’ receivers to beat them one-on-one. That should give USC plenty of chances to see which wideouts are up to the challenge of stepping into a leading role.
It’s no guarantee it’ll be a receiver that shoulders that added burden for USC. A heavy emphasis on the run is expected after Keaontay Ingram rolled to 342 yards over the last two weeks. There’s high hopes for USC’s tight ends, too, with Malcolm Epps coming on as of late and freshman Michael Trigg hopefully eyeing a return before the end of the season.
But the path is paved for Ford to finish especially strong in his friend’s absence. As they considered the road ahead this week, Ford told London to stay positive through his rehab process.
London offered his own advice.
“He told me to just go do it, continue what I’ve been doing,” Ford said. “I told him I’ve got him.”