During the 2011 season, college football fans all over the country learned to appreciate the steady hands and run-after-the-catch ability of then-sophomore receiver Robert Woods and the speed and playmaking ability of then-freshman receiver Marqise Lee.
The duo seemed to be perfect complements to one another.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they performed well in tandem, though: They have been playing on the same football team and setting records together for years.
Woods, Lee and sophomore receiver George Farmer, a decorated wideout himself, all starred at Serra High School in Gardena, Calif.
“To have three of the top people at the same school is nuts,” Lee said.
Woods is a year older than Lee and Farmer, but in the years they played together, the numbers they put up were staggering. And no one reaped the benefits like their quarterback, Conner Preston, currently a redshirt freshman at SMU.
“Obviously, it made my job a lot easier,” said Preston, a two-year starter for the Cavaliers.
During his senior year at Serra, Woods caught 66 passes for 1,112 yards and 15 touchdowns. He went on to become one of the top receiver prospects in the country and was a five-star recruit. As a senior, the receiver starting across from him was Farmer, who similarly wound up as the top receiver prospect the following season.
“A lot of guys make plays around you,” Woods said. “It’s just very exciting because you see guys making plays, other guys making [people] fall and miss.”
Lee, however, did not develop as quickly on the offensive side of the ball as his counterparts. In fact, he did not start at receiver until his senior season and was recruited by most schools as a safety.
Once he moved to offense, though, he and Farmer created quite the pair: Lee grabbed 57 passes for 1,409 yards and 24 touchdowns while Farmer snagged 65 passes for 1,514 yards and 14 touchdowns. In those two seasons, Preston threw 88 touchdown passes and the team went 29-1.
“Robert was a year above us, and he was like the leader of the pack,” Preston said. “When I came in as a junior quarterback, Robert really helped me with the offense.”
Lee said it is incredible playing with the same receivers at the collegiate level and seeing their success continue.
“At the end of the day, I never expected to actually play with all of them,” Lee said. “Now that I am playing with all of them, I’m appreciative about it, that we all end up at the same place.”
The athleticism of the trio was obvious to Preston during their days at Serra. He remembered the time Lee wanted to learn how to do a backflip.
Lee saw another player do it and felt the instant urge in pregame to try it, shoulder pads, helmet and all.
“I was like, ‘Dude, please don’t do that. I don’t want you to break your neck,’” Preston said. “‘We got to win this game.’”
Lee went for it anyway, and, by Preston’s account, cleared it by about three feet.
“I knew I was capable of doing [a backflip], but [Farmer and I said], ‘We need to try this. How do you do it?’” Lee said. “And [our other teammate] was like, ‘Just run and hit the backflip.’ So then me and George tried it and hit the backflip.”
Woods, however, was not so lucky in his attempt.
“Robert tried, but he wasn’t quite successful,” Lee said, grinning.
Woods admits that jumping is not his forte. “I’m the only one out of the bunch that can’t dunk,” he said.
Lee was more straightforward in his explanation.
“Robert … [his] jumping ability is not that amazing,” Lee said with a laugh. “He wasn’t a big basketball player.”
Despite being a first team All-American last season, Woods is still the butt of jokes from his then-high school, now-USC teammates.
“[We make fun of him] all the time,” Lee said. “We always have a jumping competition because we know he can’t jump. [We] can’t have catching competitions, because we know he can catch.”
The friendly bond between the receivers and their familiarity with one another helped make the transition for Lee a lot smoother than it could have been.
“Robert being here, a year earlier than [George and I], he provided that leadership and helped us throughout the season to learn what we needed to learn,” Lee said.
Woods’ guidance evidently worked, as Lee was named a freshman All-American and had more than 1,143 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns during his first season on campus. And though Farmer was not a huge contributor in 2011, Woods thinks he certainly has the ability to do so.
“He [has to] be out here in practice, honestly,” Woods said. “His health is his main issue right now. Once he takes care of his health, I feel like he should make the plays.”
The bond of the Serra players is obvious on the USC practice field, but it goes deeper than that: Woods is in constant communication with Preston and other former teammates.
“We still talk. For sure, once or twice a week,” Woods said.
When back home, they meet up and go back to their stomping grounds in Gardena for old times’ sake. And even in the heart of Texas, Preston makes sure to monitor the success of his friends in cardinal and gold.
“When it comes to Saturdays, I’m on the road, you know, getting to my game,” Preston said. “Whenever we’re in the hotel, I just sit down and I’m watching George Farmer, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods on the television … I feel like everywhere I turn, I see a Serra High School player on TV.”