No matter the changes, USC's Lee is ready
April, 1, 2013
By Kevin Gemmell | ESPN.com
LOS ANGELES -- Marqise Lee is going to have to get used to change. Because in 2013, a lot is going to be different for college football's reigning Biletnikoff Award winner.
No longer will he have a four-year starting quarterback in Matt Barkley tossing him passes. Nor will he simply be a complementary piece in a receiving duo.
Perhaps most importantly, he's going to have to adjust to the fact that without Barkley his numbers will likely take a hit, regardless of which of the three green quarterbacks wins USC's starting job.
"I think a lot of what Marqise has to do is going to be mental," said USC coach Lane Kiffin. "He's going to have to be able to handle the expectations and the potential knowing that his numbers won't be what they were. That can be frustrating as you go through a new quarterback. He's not just a premier receiver, but the best receiver in the country. He's someone that is going to be talked about for the Heisman and, unfortunately at his position, someone else controls your destiny."
In 2012, Lee led the nation or was in the top three in almost every receiving category. He caught 118 balls for 1,721 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns. There are few who question that in 2013 he is the single-most dangerous skill-position player in college football.
"I believe in my quarterback -- whoever it's going to be," Lee said. "If you're out there, that means you are capable of getting the job done. If the ball gets to me, I'm going to do whatever I can to make things happen. I've never been focused on the numbers. I've been about helping our team win. You get distracted when you start thinking about numbers. Whatever I have to do to help us win -- catch that last pass, or not have any catches and spring a guy with a good block -- that's what I'm going to do."
His would-be quarterbacks hear the rumblings, too -- the whispers that Lee's Heisman campaign might sink because a rookie quarterback will be running the offense. And, yes, they take that personally.
"With us being young, people are going to say that," said Cody Kessler, who is in the thick of the quarterback competition with Max Wittek and Max Browne. "But we've been training hard. We've been studying Matt for two years. Our job is to get Marqise the ball and let him make plays. If we keep improving, I don't see any reason why he can't do what he did last year -- or better. So, yeah, we take that personally."
Clouding the issue is that without Robert Woods opposite him, more teams are going to double-team Lee. Then again ...
"Throwing to him is like throwing to a 20-foot net," Kessler said. "He's a freak of nature. It's unreal how athletic he is."
As long as Lee has been with the Trojans, he's always been part of a tandem with Woods. Even back in high school, it was George Farmer and Lee. Now Lee is the lone No. 1. The headliner.
"That's a way different role," Lee said. "I enjoyed being part of a duo. Robert was always the guy. I just came in and helped. I'm in a situation now where I'm sitting in Robert's chair. I know teams are going to try to cover me harder. And if they do, that's fine. I'll watch someone else score touchdowns."
Lee also knows the expectations -- the kind that aren't on the football field -- will grow exponentially this year. A lot of people are going to want to get close to him. Get a piece of him. Because waiting at the end of the 2013 season is a probable top-10 spot in the 2014 NFL draft.
"He's a very mature young man," Kiffin said. "For him, managing his daily life is the theme with him and I. Right now, especially this fall, there is no one else around him that is like him. He has so much to gain and so much to lose. Nobody else is like that. No roommates or other players.
"He doesn't get to be like everybody else. He's been given a lot. There are a lot of expectations around him. He has to make sure everything he does is solely based on academics and football. People will want to hang out with him and tug at him and tell him how great he is. We have to make sure he has great focus."
Lee said he's had the conversation with Kiffin and he understands his responsibilities to the team -- and himself.
"All the awards, all of that is in the past," Lee said. "I've set my goals. I don't pay attention to people who want to get at me. I'm paying attention to school and football and pushing everything else aside."
Last week, Wittek was walking through the new John McKay Center and noticed Lee's All-American plaque being hung on the wall alongside all of the other Trojans who have earned the honor. Seeing that made him realize how much easier his life will be if he wins the starting job.
"When you see him do some of the things he does, you realize just how special he is," Wittek said. "I may never see another athlete like him for the rest of my life. He's that kind of player."