Lee seeks encore to historic year
USC junior wide receiver Marqise Lee is entering just his third year in the program, but for opposing secondaries, it must seem like he's been terrorizing them forever.
After all, even at a school that churns out All-Americans and future NFL standouts with remarkable frequency, no one else has accomplished so much in such a short period of time.
Already the owner or co-owner of 22 school records, Lee has compiled a staggering 191 receptions for 2,864 yards and 25 touchdowns in his career while also averaging 28.5 return yards on kickoffs. Of course, it was during his sophomore campaign that everything came together. Showcasing the perfect blend of speed, soft hands and dynamic playmaking skills, he racked up a Pac-12 single-season-record 118 grabs and 1,721 receiving yards on his way to becoming the Trojans' first Biletnikoff Award winner.
Not surprisingly -- and despite the fact that he missed time earlier this month in fall camp after suffering a bone bruise in his shoulder -- expectations are sky high when it comes to Lee's production for 2013, with his name being tossed around regularly in Heisman Trophy discussions.
But for Lee, who has looked like his old self in limited action since returning from injury, it's not the accolades or numbers that drive him. Instead, it's something stored deep inside his psyche, pushing him in his pursuit to be the best player he can be.
"The Heisman, the Biletnikoff, whatever you want to talk about, is the last thing on my mind," Lee said. "I'm self‑motivated and I've pushed the issue. At the end of the day, I feel like the coach is there to motivate you, but then again, how about if it doesn't hit the spot to get a player to keep going? So I take it upon myself to continue to work hard."
It's a good thing, too, because with quarterback Matt Barkley and wide receiver Robert Woods now in the NFL, USC coach Lane Kiffin and the Trojans' passing offense figure to rely on Lee's talents even more, and it stands to reason that opposing defenses will do everything they can to stop him.
But for Lee, who for the first time is the undeniable face of the USC program, it's a challenge he's more than ready to take on.
"It's something that I'm looking forward to," Lee said. "And I'm hoping that it will also open up opportunities for other guys to step up and do what they're supposed to do. I know that they're capable, so all they've got to do is step up and do it.
"As far as me having a target on my back, it's just a matter of me working through it and finding other ways of getting open to get the ball. And if not, I hope somebody else gets the ball. Either way, it's about helping the team in any way I can, even if I don't get a chance to."
In order for Lee's vision to come to fruition, however, those "other guys" are going to need to perform when called upon. And for a receiving corps that already lost two members -- junior George Farmer and freshman Steven Mitchell -- to season-ending knee injuries, it will be a challenge. In addition to Lee, Nelson Agholor, Darreus Rogers, Victor Blackwell and De'Von Flournoy are the team's only scholarship receivers.
It's a unit marked by inexperience, to be sure, but also undeniable talent. The group's development has been aided by Lee, who has taken on a more active role as a leader, in both his actions and his words.
"The main thing is, I just get them to stay focused," Lee said. "But I do remind them that there's an opportunity out there and they need to take advantage.
"You know, me, freshman year coming in, I didn't try to talk as much because I didn't feel I was in the right place. Now I think I have a little bit of a right to actually speak up and say some things. But for the most part, I'm not really saying much. I'm just going to go out there and compete, and do what I need to do on the field, and in the end, I know they'll learn from that."
It's been Agholor, in particular, who has followed Lee over the past six months. Emerging as a budding star this spring, he earned the No. 2 receiver job and looks poised to fill the void left by Woods.
More than that, like Lee, Agholor has established himself as one of the team's hardest workers, and the two have developed a unique relationship on the field that could wind up paying big dividends.
"For the most part, he knows what he's doing, but I'm always critiquing him, and he's always critiquing me," Lee said. "We're just trying to get each other better. From a receivers' standpoint, we're just trying to be the best ever, but in order to be the best, you have to critique each other and be hard on each other, and that's what we do."
With that added push, all of the pieces seem to be in place for another banner season for Lee -- which could help a USC program coming off a disappointing 7-6 campaign return to its winning ways. And, as Lee is quick to point out, that stands as his biggest priority this season.
"As long as we're winning," Lee said, "that's all I care about."