LOS ANGELES -- Sophomore receiver Robert Woods has gotten off to such a hot start to the 2011 season that opposing defenses are starting to shadow him with two or three players as soon as he steps off the team bus. And as the USC Trojans look for an offensive weapon to step up to alleviate some of the pressure on the proven superstar, one name keeps popping up.
That name wasn't supposed to be Marqise Lee. Brice Butler, Kyle Prater or George Farmer would have made sense to most USC fans, but it seems every time a play is made by a wide receiver not wearing No. 2, it's Lee's name bellowing over the public-address system.
The true freshman, who ranks second on the team with nine receptions and 129 yards through the first three games, was supposed to be using his redshirt year learning how to play free safety or cornerback full time -- at least, that's what many who watched him star on that side of the ball at Gardena (Calif.) Serra High School thought.
"I heard things, people saying that I should play on defense," Lee said. "But to me it doesn't really matter. At any position the coaches put me, I was just going to go in and work hard. That's all I've done so far."
Lee contributed two receptions for 63 yards and a touchdown in USC's 38-17 victory over Syracuse, his third consecutive game with at least two catches. He has received the starting nod in all three games and is gaining confidence on the field and in the eyes of starting quarterback Matt Barkley. That trust manifested itself late in the third quarter, when Lee ran a simple go route down the USC sideline and settled under a perfect pass from Barkley for a 43-yard scoring play, Lee's first collegiate touchdown.
"I couldn't stop smiling," said Lee, of course, through a smile. "I had a hard time giving up the ball. I'm just happy I got a chance to score, and I'm happy that it gave Matt (Barkley) the ability to have a great game."
Lee said the feeling matched up exactly with what he had imagined in scoring his first touchdown. After the score, Lee nearly had to be dragged off the field, as he searched out every offensive teammate to celebrate, then spent some time with the special teams unit entering the field to kick the extra point.
"That's the kind of guy he is," said Woods, who has had the chance to play with Lee at Serra and watch the freshman grow up quickly at USC. "He's very energetic and a team player. He's always flying around and cheering on his teammates."
The talent was certainly evident from the first time he stepped on the practice field for fall camp, but more than a week into it, the idea of Lee starting alongside Woods seemed farfetched. Now, it's a given.
"It's just hard work in practice," Lee said of how he's progressed to this point. "Coach [Lane] Kiffin pushes and pushes, and it just makes me work harder and harder."
Not many players on the Trojans have the ability to take bragging rights into a conversation with Woods, but Lee's performance on Saturday night may give him a little something. Lee is paying attention to the progress Woods made during his freshman season, trying to put himself on track to closely follow USC's current star. While Woods might have set a USC record for receptions in the first three games of the season with 33, Lee's first touchdown came one week earlier in his freshman season than the first time Woods was able to cross the goal line as a freshman.
"I'm proud of him," Woods said. "He's playing big in big games and got his first touchdown in the Coliseum."
Lee's score did more than just push the margin to 31-10 in favor of the Trojans. Syracuse was looking to gain momentum after a trick play resulted in wide receiver Alec Lemon throwing a 28-yard touchdown pass to cut USC's lead to 24-10. After recovering its own fumble on the ensuing kickoff, USC went three-and-out, and visions of two lackluster second halves fluttered through the Coliseum. When Lee produced his touchdown on the following possession, the tide turned back the Trojans' way, and the rout was on.
While wide receiver Brandon Carswell and the tight end duo of Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer combined for nine catches, 106 yards and two touchdowns, Lee's ability to stretch the field and come up with a clutch catch should prove to USC's future opponents that the Trojans won't be heading into games with Woods headlining a cast of anonymous characters.
"It's very important," Lee said of making plays to complement Woods. "He is going to get all the attention, because he's a great player, so now it's my chance to step up and show everybody I can do it. If myself or another receiver are doing great, it opens everything up and makes the defense play all of us, which gives Robert the opportunity to open back up and do what he has to do."
Erik McKinney is the recruiting editor for WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 2004. He can be reached at email@example.com.