Commentary

Workhorse Woods chases SC standards

Trojans' passing system geared to sophomore receiver as he pushes for season records

Updated: October 14, 2011, 10:44 PM ET
By Brian Kamenetzky | ESPN.com

According to USC football philosophy, if you have a horse, you ride him.

Fair to say the 2011 Trojans have saddled up Robert Woods. Through six games, the true sophomore has 60 catches for 783 yards and six touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeRobert Woods
Kelvin Kuo/US PresswireIf Robert Woods maintains his average production for the final six games, he will own the USC season marks for receptions and receiving yards.
Despite the gaudy stats and a softening stance among Heisman voters toward second-year players, the historical bias against wide receivers combined with USC's current sub-elite status makes a trophy run unlikely.

There will be no bowl at the end of this season's rainbow, but Woods has plenty of history to chase. Even after a five-catch, 36-yard performance in USC's 30-9 win Thursday night against Cal in San Francisco -- easily his worst game statistically this season -- Woods remains on a historic pace. Averages of seven catches and 123 yards per tilt would push him past Keyshawn Johnson's all-time USC record of 102 receptions in a season (1995) and Johnny Morton's mark of 1,520 receiving yardage (1993).

Neither figure qualifies as a gimme for Woods. But because both represent lower figures than his current game averages of 10 catches and 130.5 yards, they aren't unrealistic ... particularly since coach Lane Kiffin clearly subscribes to the USC school of star usage.

"We have an approach that once we find a No. 1 guy, our offense really revolves around that guy," Kiffin said. "It's just been our philosophy that if you have a great tailback, you turn and hand him the ball 25 times a game.

"And so if you have a great receiver, the last thing we want to do is come out of a game and the guy only touched the ball four or five times," he said. "So we just try to find ways to get him the ball, and keep feeding him."

When it hits the fan, they're going to him.

--Keyshawn Johnson, on USC
playmaker Robert Woods

That Woods is a prodigious talent is obvious. But with the system so obviously geared toward him -- whether through downfield shots or quick, high-percentage throws designed to put him in space -- is there any chance the numbers are a little artificial?

Johnson would know. To say he understands the role of a No. 1 receiver qualifies as understatement. During Johnson's 102-reception season, the next closest Trojans receiver had 33 catches.

Kiffin & Co. are doing well moving Woods around and dialing up multiple opportunities for him to thrive, according to Johnson.

The rest, though, is Woods.

"That he's taking advantage of the opportunities shows he's the real deal," Johnson said. "You've had guys like the kid that was there last year, Ronald Johnson, who didn't take advantage of the opportunities the way he should have.

"Robert Woods is extraordinary in terms of his skill set. He has big hands. He runs extremely good routes."

That Woods has dominated without a host of great offensive weapons around him is particularly impressive, according to Johnson. Not all statistically dominant seasons are created equal.

[+] EnlargeRobert Woods
Chris Williams/Icon SMIRobert Woods and USC are expected to be involved in what could be college football's most intriguing Saturday in recent memory.
"When you say [former Trojans wide receiver] Mike Williams, [that team] had talent across the board, so of course he's going to do what he's doing. They're not that talented right now. They're young, and they're not that talented," Johnson said. "And despite that, he's still getting his catches and his numbers and still dominating the game."

Added Johnson: "When it hits the fan, they're going to him." And everyone knows it.

Johnson compares Woods to former Trojans receiver Steve Smith -- now with the NFL's Eagles -- who was highly productive, if slightly underrated during his tenure at USC.

Woods agreed.

"He's someone I model my game after," Woods said of Smith. "His routes [were excellent]. He always gets in and out of his breaks quick."

And in an age of giant NFL receivers like Calvin Johnson, Woods has a stature similar to that of 5-foot-11 Smith, as well. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, Woods is smaller than fellow USC receiver Marqise Lee (25 catches for 404 yards), his former teammate at Serra High in Gardena, Calif., and is forced to compensate.

"I just have to play fast and play big," Woods said. And with some reckless abandon, too.

"He tosses that body around like he's a 200-pound-plus guy," said receivers coach Ted Gilmore.

Woods' learning curve further validates his numbers. Teammates and coaches marvel at his intelligence and attention to detail.

"He studies, he watches film, he watches opponents," Gilmore said. "If you tell him something, he's going to do what you tell him to do. In most cases if he does wrong, I told him wrong."

His smarts allow Woods to absorb all the information necessary to play in multiple locations around the field. "Sometimes you have some kids that can't learn all that stuff," Kiffin said.

Woods can and does, and is quickly shoring up weaknesses that plagued him last season, most notably dropped balls. As a freshman, he struggled with them. After working on his hand speed and positioning, Woods didn't allow a pass to come off his hands -- despite almost endless attention this season from quarterback Matt Barkley -- until Thursday's game against Cal.

If he's letting so little leather slip through his fingers, it's a good bet those records won't get by, either.

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