Long after players, coaches and equipment managers exited the USC locker room last Saturday after the Trojans’ narrow 48-41 victory over Arizona, two jovial voices could still be heard chatting it up in the far left corner of the room.
Huddled closely around their adjacent lockers were two teammates, two friends, two students of the game, reminiscing about the roads which brought them from Junipero Serra High School in nearby Gardena, Calif., to their newfound lives of highlight-filled Saturdays and sudden nationwide recognition.
The elder, sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods, had just recorded a career-high 255 receiving yards (five short of the school record) and a career-long 82-yard touchdown reception, while the younger, freshman wideout Marqise Lee, had a coming out party of his own with a career-high eight receptions, 144 yards receiving and a beautiful 38-yard touchdown catch.
Regardless of where their individual journeys might take them, the two have come to terms with the fact that they will forever be linked to one another. But if Lee’s “I belong” moment against the Wildcats serves as any indication, he might already be walking down a solo path that he and Woods can both appreciate.
“It’s been hard creating my own path,” Lee said. “When I made the change from defense to offense, the first challenge was making a name for myself amongst all of these great receivers. Then when I came out in the fall and moved up on the depth chart, naturally people brought my name up with Robert. It’s an honor, but we really are two different players. And I think people are starting to see that.”
Though Woods has joked on many occasions Lee is the stronger, faster and more athletic receiver of the two, the freshman’s last three performances (14 catches, 257 yards and three touchdowns for 24, 38 and 43 yards a piece) are no laughing matter. Overshadowed at times by his longtime teammate, his progress through five weeks is not lost on anyone.
“Just look for him to get better and to continue putting up numbers for our offense,” Woods said. “I know that he is his own person and his own player. It’s exciting to see him grow and I’m just proud of him.”
Though Lee’s game champions humility instead of flashiness, the former national champion track star (his long jump of 24-8 was top in the country in 2011) is not afraid to step up in the big moment. Whether it was his acrobatic touchdown grab to pull the Trojans close in the third quarter in their loss against Arizona State or the leaping catch he made on a 45-yard jump ball pass to open the fourth quarter against Arizona, Lee admits he thrives when the lights shine the brightest.
“My ability to go make a play for the offense is my best asset,” Lee said. “If we need a big catch down the field or a short first down or just a big block, I just want to be a part of it. It’s about knowing your role at all times and executing.”
Lee is by no means riding on the coattails of his recent success, however, because in his eyes, he hasn’t lived up to the expectations he set for himself.
“I might have a great game here and there, but that’s not the time to be content,” Lee said. “I am a young guy trying to go out and execute when my name is called, whether that’s in practice or in a game. The test should always be, can I do better than I did the week before. Maybe that comes with maturity, but that’s where my focus is right now.”
If his scholarly approach to practice, big play capabilities during crunch time aren’t enough to sell you that he’s the next big thing at USC, look no further than his coaching staff, who on a daily basis is not shy on showering praise on the Inglewood, Calif., native.
“I know it’s early to say, but I think he is going to be one of the best receivers ever to play at this school,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said after last Thursday’s practice.
Others have expressed similar sentiments.
“He is a pleasure to coach because what you see on game day is what we see during the week at practice,” wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore said. “He a delightful young man who is mature beyond his years. Not to mention, he is as good a student of the game as he is a player.”
Through the first five games of Lee’s collegiate career, his output is on par with the likes of Woods, as well as other former Trojan All-Americans such as Keyshawn Johnson, Mike Williams and Lynn Swann. And though it might be a tad early to crown him the next face of the USC football program, it’s hard not to like a guy whose ear-to-ear grin is never far behind.
“I just love to play the game,” Lee said. “I want fans to see a guy who just plays with passion, plays hard and does what it takes to help the team be as successful as it can be. For me, that’s enough.”