USC sophomore Marqise Lee is already one of the most dynamic players in college football as a wide receiver and kick returner. CBSSports.com’s weekly Heisman Trophy Straw Poll ranked Lee fourth, after all.
But if it was up to the talented wideout, he’d do even more for the No. 11 Trojans.
On the return flight home to Los Angeles following last Thursday’s win at Utah, Lee lobbied USC coach Lane Kiffin for snaps on defense at the second cornerback spot opposite junior Nickell Robey.
Kiffin entertained the idea the next day, a sign of the desperate times facing USC’s secondary. But by Tuesday, Kiffin said he had dismissed the radical strategy — although he didn’t exactly give a definitive response.
“Not right now, no,” Kiffin said. “He is so valuable in the reps [on offense] where the ball doesn’t go to him based off of defenses that are called… [But] if he wanted to play defense, he’d be a first-round corner.”
A first-round talent at the second cornerback spot is exactly what the Trojan defense needs; redshirt junior Torin Harris and freshman Kevon Seymour both gave up touchdowns while playing as the second corner against the Utes, and Harris gave up another that was offset by a penalty.
Even Lee’s defensive teammates agree that he could add to the secondary.
“He could help wherever he lines up on the field,” said senior safety T.J. McDonald. “Wherever he winds up, he can make plays.”
Robey responded along the same lines.
“Marqise is an athlete, I don’t doubt that he could play defensive back,” he said. “But I just don’t know how serious [Kiffin] was when he said that [Lee could play defense].”
Trojan fans should hope that Kiffin wasn’t serious.
There’s no doubt that Lee has torn up the field on offense (52 receptions, 649 receiving yards, 7 touchdowns) and special teams (26.7 kick return average, 1 touchdown). Since Matt Barkley has performed below expectations, Lee might have the best shot of anyone on the current roster at being USC’s first Heisman Trophy winner since Reggie Bush — I mean, Matt Leinart.
But Lee is simply too valuable on offense to give him time on the other side of the ball and risk him getting injured.
Amid Barkley and junior wide receiver Robert Wood’s occasional hiccups this season, Lee has been the model of consistency for the Trojans, ranking second in the country with an average of 10.4 receptions per game and fourth nationally with 129.8 receiving yards per contest.
But despite the confidence shown by Lee, his coach and his teammates, it’s hard to tell if Lee’s talent would pay immediate dividends on defense.
Though he did play both ways in high school, Lee spent most of his time on defense at strong safety, which let him be more of a ballhawk than most corners are allowed to be.
There could also be a learning curve with the intricacies of Monte Kiffin’s defense; after all, two years ago, Robey was the corner getting picked on by opposing offenses.
Even though Lee dismissed concerns that he would tire from the extra snaps, you never know when cramps can pop up and take out a player during a crucial point in a game.
And since Lee has emerged this season as Barkley’s security blanket, accounting for just under half of Barkley’s 1,308 passing yards, it would be a major disadvantage to have him on the sidelines during an important drive.
Besides, it might be unwise to rule out the possibility of a dark horse in the secondary stepping up and claiming the second corner spot.
Redshirt sophomore Josh Shaw, currently listed as the third-string strong safety, played both safety and cornerback at Florida before transferring to USC in January, and Kiffin said the staff is considering switching Shaw to corner.
Redshirt freshman cornerback Ryan Henderson elicited whoops from his teammates at Wednesday’s practice with a red zone interception during a scrimmage.
And of course, Harris or Seymour could recover from their performance against the Utes and quiet all this talk by shutting down Washington’s flankers Saturday.
“It’s a spot that we’re working on,” McDonald said. “We may not have had the results that we want every week on game day. But I promise you one thing: We are working at it, and we’re trying to get better.”
The Trojans will be better off if Lee just keeps doing what he does best — scoring touchdowns. Not preventing them.
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