Once Matt Barkley announced last December that he would be returning to USC for his senior season, he immediately became the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.
But on the first play of scrimmage during the Trojans’ season, sophomore wide receiver Marqise Lee gave a sign of what was to come, catching a screen pass, juking two Hawai’i defenders and galloping 75 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.
It looked like the beginning of another beautiful season for Barkley and Lee, but only the latter has lived up to the lofty expectations placed on him.
While Barkley has been bearing the brunt of the blame in the national media for the Trojans’ three losses, Lee has been putting up video-game numbers, and is now USC’s best candidate for the school’s first Heisman winner since Reggie Bush won the award in 2005.
USC’s athletic department has taken notice of this turn of events — on Wednesday, it shifted its focus to Lee’s candidacy by releasing a two-minute YouTube video that begins with the question, “Who is the best player in college football?”
The video goes on to display Lee’s season highlights, subtitled with his eye-popping stats and quotes from opposing coaches.
“Marqise Lee may be the best receiver I’ve had the opportunity to coach against,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly is quoted as saying. He later continued to declare that Lee is “impressive on film, but even more impressive when you watch him in person.”
“He’s not an NFL prospect, he’s an NFL for sure,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “He can start in the NFL right now.”
USC coach Lane Kiffin says gushing comments from rival coaches will end up holding more credence than anything he could say about his star wideout.
“As a head coach, you’re always gonna say good things about your stars,” Kiffin said. “When other people are making statements like that, I think that should be more powerful than a video being sent out or numbers being sent out.”
Still, Lee’s numbers are mighty impressive.
The flanker leads the nation with 88 receptions and 2,007 all-purpose yards, and is second in receiving yards (1,286) and third in touchdowns (12).
In the past two weeks alone, he’s racked up 28 receptions, 502 receiving yards and 877 all-purpose yards.
“It’s unusual for a receiver to have the type of numbers that he’s having,” Kiffin said. “I didn’t have anything to do with the production of the video, but it’d be hard to argue that he’s not playing as well as anybody in America.”
Heisman pundits have somewhat taken notice of Lee’s accomplishments, but as of now, he probably won’t be invited to New York as one of the five Heisman finalists.
On ESPN’s Heisman Watch released Tuesday, Lee was ranked seventh. Kansas State’s Collin Klein garnered 13 out of 15 first-place votes, while Oregon’s Kenjon Barner and Alabama’s AJ McCarron tallied one first-place vote each and finished second and third, respectively.
There are a few disadvantages that Lee will have to overcome to claim the coveted award, the first being the position he plays.
It’s been over 20 years since a receiver last won the Heisman — Michigan’s Desmond Howard was the last to do so in 1991. Only three wideouts have won the trophy in its 77-year history, and the last 14 winners have been either quarterbacks or running backs.
“He doesn’t get as much touches as a running back would, or a quarterback would,” Kiffin said.
But the biggest obstacle standing in Lee’s way? The number three. As in the amount of losses USC has already suffered this season.
Out of the nine players listed on ESPN’s Heisman Watch, Lee is the only one to play on a team with more than two losses.
In fact, six of the candidates — Klein, Barner, McCarron, Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller and Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater — have yet to experience the agony of defeat this season.
Kiffin thinks Lee’s record-breaking game (345 receiving yards) against Arizona two weeks ago lost some of its luster because of the team’s subsequent defeats.
“You have some historical performances coming out of [Barkley] and Marqise that are being missed,” Kiffin said. “We always tell our players, ‘The more games you win, the more awards come.’”
If that’s true, then it doesn’t really matter if Lee continues to stockpile receptions, all-purpose yards and touchdowns.
Unfortunately, if we don’t see the Trojans in Pasadena for the Rose Bowl come January, then we won’t see Lee in New York, either.
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