The USC football team’s first scrimmage of fall camp earlier this August saw a very notable player absent after the first couple drives: junior wide receiver Marqise Lee. USC head coach Lane Kiffin explained that a handful of players were withheld from the majority of snaps to give other players without as much experience exposure to the intensity of a live game.
“We were looking for about 20 plays in the first half, much like how an NFL preseason game would be run,” Kiffin said.
The latter part of the comment is fitting for Lee; after all, it seems only a matter of time before the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner is sitting on the sideline with NFL starters after the first few snaps of a preseason game.
In the more immediate future, however, Lee will line up with the Trojans this fall, coming off one of the most impressive statistical seasons by a wideout in Pac-12 history. His performance this season could rewrite the Pac-12’s career receiving record books.
Lee is 1,131 yards, 68 receptions and 16 touchdowns away from the Pac-12 career receiving record in each category. For the sake of comparison, Lee had 1,721 yards, 118 receptions and 14 touchdowns last season. The first two categories could be accomplished even with a drop-off in production from last season’s efforts.
That is not to say Lee is satisfied with his efforts from last season. A visit to the Trojans’ summer training camps this past offseason would suggest that Lee has no idea that he was a consensus All-American in 2012, or that he’s on track to be the most decorated receiver in Pac-12 history.
His intensity and work ethic in workouts and scrimmages could be likened to that of a walk-on wide receiver fighting for a spot on the team — not the man who almost singlehandedly outgained Arizona’s opposing quarterback in a record-smashing 345-yard performance last October in Tucson.
Still, there’s something calm, yet fearsome about how Lee approaches the game, even in practices. From the top-down view afforded to many spectators during the regular season, it seems Lee propels himself through various slants and fades from the rapid piston-like action of his legs.
From the up-close vantage point of a practice, however, the opposite becomes apparent: Lee’s strides seem to slow down.
In one particular 11-on-11 drill, Lee made a spotless catch on a post over the middle and began to increase separation between himself and his assigned cornerback. It was not immediately apparent how hard Lee was actually running until seeing the cornerback, whose hunched back and faltering gaze was reminiscent of a marathoner summoning his last breaths to cross the finish line.
Lee’s lithe, elegant strides made his pursuant defenders appear to be running on an undersized treadmill. If possible, Lee looks like more of a polished runner this offseason than he did in 2012. He returns with even surer hands and has further developed his reflexes and creativity in the open field.
The argument against Lee producing more than he did last season begins with how opposing defenses will anticipate his abilities this season.
Yet even against Cal last season, who held former quarterback Matt Barkley to just 192 yards, Lee managed 94 yards and two touchdowns.
Lee was able to snatch underthrown and overthrown balls out of the sky in double coverage last season, and he has made a routine of it with the shuffling of quarterbacks during spring and summer camps. A look at how opposing defenses attempted to stop Lee last season should reasonably assure the Trojan faithful that there is simply no way to prepare for a version of Lee who is any better than he was in 2012.
None of this, though, is Lee’s stated intention. Despite what appears to be even further refinement of his personal execution, it’s the progress of the team that concerns Lee most. Sophomore wide receiver Nelson Agholor bears testament to Lee’s commitment to team goals.
“Whatever Marqise does, it’s always for the team,” Agholor said. “He does whatever it takes to make the team better.”
These are not just errantly thrown, PR-friendly sentiments. Lee is bringing intensity to every other facet of his game, including going full speed on blocks in practice snaps. He is afforded the luxury of basking in his efforts from last season, yet seems uncomfortable at the thought. When asked how his season could reshape Pac-12 history, Lee sidesteps any notions of a personal legacy as deftly as an oncoming safety in the open field.
“As far as records and stuff, that’s something I don’t focus on,” Lee said. “At the end of the day, I do want to leave a legacy here, but what I would like people to remember in the long run is the things I did for the team.”
The team kicks off its campaign Aug. 29 at Hawaii. Lee will be ready, and his long legs will stride in pursuit of the one statistic that, despite his stupendous efforts, was relatively low last season: A team victory.
Follow Euno Lee on Twitter @eunowhat