USC Trojans: Robert Woods
It sounds like a relatively harmless question considering USC’s All-Planet junior is unanimously regarded as the finest college wide receiver in America. I mean, does it really matter whether he catches 90 balls, or 100, or even a mind-boggling 118 as he did last year?
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1) Leonard Williams: It was a pretty good start for his career when Williams was named the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year. He’s got the kind of size and athletic ability to be a unique interior lineman when all is said and done, the kind of impact player who could definitely find his way to this list sooner rather than later.
2) Nelson Agholor: Marqise Lee already made the list, Robert Woods was a glaring omission and now the Trojans have another receiver in Agholor who has the ability to earn his spot before too long. Agholor is showing the kind of game-breaking skills that allowed Woods and Lee to see so much success in recent years.
3) Su'a Cravens: Yes, it’s hard to put a guy on this list before he has played a down of football, but Cravens isn’t your run-of-the-mill can’t-miss prospect. He’s got tremendous size for the position and an aggressive, attacking style that could one day allow him to take a place in an impressive list of elite players at the USC safety spot.
4) Hayes Pullard: This might be a bit of a surprise pick but not if you consider that Pullard has already put in two productive years at the linebacker spot. He will be a clear leader of the defense this year as he moves to the middle and if he stays for his senior seasons, you could be talking about a four-year starter with an impressive body of work.
And he's right. He's blessed with speed and athleticism. He's blessed with sure hands and sharp instincts. He's blessed to have learned from Robert Woods while continuing to learn from Marqise Lee.
"No question, I'm in a blessed position," the 6-foot, 185-pound Nigerian-born Agholor said. "I get to be in the same position he was in last year. He had a chance to make plays alongside a great wide receiver and now I get a chance to make plays alongside a great wide receiver."
In his freshman campaign, playing behind Woods and Lee, Agholor caught 19 balls for 340 yards and two touchdowns. But it was against the league's two premier teams -- Stanford and Oregon -- that he played his best football. Though both were losses, he caught three balls for 77 yards against the Cardinal and six balls for 162 yards and a score against the Ducks.
Now the projected starter playing opposite Lee, the reigning Biletnikoff winner, Agholor will be afforded a wealth of opportunities to showcase his talents.
"I'm not worried about individual accolades," he said. "I'm my own guy, but my job is to get open. Marqise is an amazing player. But he can't do my job for me. Playing alongside him is a wonderful opportunity. But just having him there doesn't guarantee that I'm going to make plays. It's up to me to make it happen."
Two years ago in Lee's freshman year, he and Woods put on the greatest receiving display of any wide receiver tandem in USC history. They were the fourth pair to both have at least 1,000 yards each, and their combined receptions (184) and receiving yards (2,435) were the most ever of any USC pair. Pretty impressive when you consider some of the duos throughout the years.
Two-thirds of that group are now in the NFL -- quarterback Matt Barkley to the Philadelphia Eagles and Woods to the Buffalo Bills. And with a new quarterback at the helm for the first time in four seasons, be it Cody Kessler, Max Wittek or Max Browne, there's likely to be some growing pains. At least, that's the outside perception. In the locker room and among the receivers, there is no expectation of a drop off.
"We're in a great spot at quarterback," Agholor said. "We have three guys who are definitely capable of helping this team get to where it needs to be. All of them have done something to show that they can be the starter. I'm confident in all of them."
Of course, 2012 didn't work out the way Agholor -- or any other Trojan for that matter -- thought it would. He also knows he's going to get a lot of looks in 2013 as defenses do what they can to slow down Lee, who caught 118 balls last year for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns while averaging 132.4 receiving yards per game. In other words, teams will likely put the clamps on Lee and make the young Agholor be the one that beats them.
"I've definitely learned a lot about this game from Robert and Marqise," he said. "The more you know about the game, the slower you can make it. You move at your own speed as your knowledge increases. Those guys really taught me how to slow the game down while still playing fast."
Motivated by the team's struggles of 2012 and knowing he's going to be one of the team's impact players in 2013, Agholor said that even though he's a sophomore, he's ready put the team on his back -- even if he is sitting second chair to the top wide receiver in the nation.
"The simplest way to put it is I want to do everything I possibly can to get us back to where we should be," Agholor said. "I want to be viewed as a leader -- as someone who is an example and takes care of his own business. If I can do that, hopefully others will follow and everything will take care of itself.
"I'm not the kind of guy who focuses too much on the past. Progression each day is what I'm all about. I want to be better than I was yesterday. And I think that has to be the mentality of this team. We can live in the moment, as long as we are progressing each day. And if we're better than we were yesterday, and you add that up over the last five months, we should be in a really good position."
For Victor Blackwell, a wide receiver heading into his redshirt sophomore season for the Trojans, that means realizing what’s at stake this fall -- a whole lot of opportunity waiting beyond the two projected starters.
The Trojans head into the season with Marqise Lee -- the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner -- and Nelson Agholor established as the starters. There is uncertainty beyond them, though. George Farmer was positioning himself for the No. 3 receiver role in spring ball before a knee injury that will cause him to miss the 2013 season. There was also a similar injury in recent weeks to incoming freshman Steven Mitchell, which means the Trojans will enter the season with five scholarship receivers.
Blackwell, the No. 10 receiver in the nation when he signed in 2011, has waited a long time for this opportunity. He was known as an explosive playmaker at Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei, where he played with current USC quarterback Max Wittek and averaged 19.5 yards per reception as a senior with 14 touchdowns.
Blackwell redshirted in his first year at USC and had one catch for nine yards as a redshirt freshman. He sat and watched while Robert Woods and Lee produced eye-popping stats, paying attention to how they did it.
“I just take notes on how Robert and Marqise act or how they handle certain situations,” Blackwell said. “I watch how they maintain their composure and just attack every day. They work hard and grind, every single day.”
It is that consistent level of performance which seems to be the next step for Blackwell in his development at USC. There have been flashes of big-play ability, but they haven’t taken place at a level that suits USC coach Lane Kiffin. In his end-of-spring news conference, Kiffin said the coaches have talked with Blackwell about the need for consistency, and Blackwell heard the message loud and clear.
“To me, consistency means someone who elevates his game, who comes out and dominates every day like Marqise, Robert and Nelson,” Blackwell said. “It means coming out every day and working to better your craft.”
Blackwell did have the benefit of one very good day this spring, putting up big numbers in the Trojans' spring game in the Coliseum. With seven catches for 155 yards and a touchdown, Blackwell showcased the skills that make him a potential game-breaker.
“It was great to be able to do that in the spring game,” Blackwell said. “I’m just thankful the coaches gave me the opportunity to make plays and show what I can do. I’m grateful for it but I want more, I need more, I’m hungry.”
That kind of hunger can build for a former prep All-American who finds himself waiting his turn in college, which has been trying at times for Blackwell.
“The hardest part about that process is to stay believing in yourself as the best receiver and telling yourself that you’re one of the tops at what you do,” Blackwell said. “Now that my opportunity is here I’m working hard this summer to go out and get it. I feel like that No. 3 spot is waiting for me and I need to go claim it. I’m getting faster and quicker and I need to work on my hands just so I’m more confident about catching the ball and being elusive with the ball in my hands. I’m willing to do whatever the coaches need from me to make the team better.”
For longtime USC fans, this is music to their ears. The Trojans offense in recent years, while certainly capable of putting up points and yards in bunches, has seen a reduction in the reliance on the philosophy of “big man on big man football.”
It was legendary USC player and coach Marv Goux who made that statement popular, reflecting the tough, blue collar image that defined USC football through the years. USC was known as “Tailback U” for a reason with a seemingly endless supply of quality tailbacks and a pipeline of offensive linemen that were destined for the NFL. It was a pretty good formula that served USC well for a long time.
In recent years, however, the balance of the USC offensive identity has shifted to feature the passing game more. Kiffin has a background as a quarterback who later coached wide receivers, so it’s no secret that he likes to throw the ball around. But Kiffin has always maintained that he wants to have a balanced offense that starts with the run game. You only have to look back as far as LenDale White and Reggie Bush to see how well that can work.
In his first season as head coach of the Trojans, Kiffin did run the ball more than he threw it -- 477 rush attempts to 453 passes. The last two seasons have trended the other direction; 392 rush attempts in both 2011 and 2012 compared to 447 passes in 2011 and 461 in 2012.
Running the football is a mentality as much as anything. It takes a commitment that starts with the play calling but ultimately rests with the players, which bodes well for the Trojans in 2013. The USC running back stable is deep and talented -- Kiffin calls it the best overall RB group he’s had at USC -- and it appears ready to go if called upon.
The leader of the group will likely be Silas Redd, the senior transfer from Penn State who led the Trojans in rushing last season. If there is one thing Redd proved in 2012, it’s that he’s a tough runner. That should come as no surprise considering his background in the Big Ten, but his physical running style was also reminiscent of USC running backs from the past. Redd underwent surgery on a torn meniscus during spring ball but is expected to be back for fall camp.
Assuming Redd is the lead ballcarrier, the competition for the primary backup spot is wide open. Right now there would be three primary candidates; Tre Madden, Justin Davis and D.J. Morgan. Madden and Morgan have battled injuries in their USC careers but each possess the kind of skills which could allow them to break out. Madden brings a power game at 225 pounds while Morgan is the speediest of the backs. Davis opened a lot of eyes in spring ball as an early enrollee with a smooth and weaving style of running that was very effective.
There will be others in the mix, as Javorius Allen was much improved this spring and Ty Isaac will arrive this fall bringing a physical element with his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame.
On top of that, the Trojans have a pair of fullbacks in Soma Vainuku and Jahleel Pinner who will be entering their sophomore seasons while the offensive line features a veteran starting lineup and a new coach in Mike Summers who preaches toughness in the run game.
The ability to run the football as part of the offensive identity will only be one part of the Trojans' offense in 2013, but it might be the most telling in terms of overall success.
Given those circumstances, it's not surprising to see both solid contributors and players who simply never found their way at USC. There were 19 players signed -- 10 of whom were in the ESPN 150 -- with wide receiver Robert Woods the highest ranked of the group and the No. 1 receiver.
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It was a mixed bag for the Trojans in this draft, as they did not have a player selected in the first round -- USC also holds the record for most first-round NFL draft choices -- and there was also the public free-fall for quarterback Matt Barkley.
Woods didn’t have to wait long to hear his name called, though, as the all-time leading USC receptions leader was selected by the Buffalo Bills in the second round with the No. 41 overall pick.
The Bills had selected a quarterback -- E.J. Manuel from Florida State -- in the first round, and they were also in the market for a No. 2 receiver to pair with Stevie Johnson. The fact that Woods was the next selection for the club after Manuel says a lot about how they feel about him as a potential long-term piece of the puzzle.
The new coach of the Bills, Doug Marrone, also faced Woods twice as the head coach of Syracuse and in those two games he saw Woods catch 18 passes for 175 yards and three touchdowns, along with a 76-yard run in 2012.
After Woods was picked, it was assumed by most USC fans that Barkley would be next off the board but, somewhat surprisingly, the next Trojan picked was safety T.J. McDonald, who went to the St. Louis Rams in the third round with the No. 71 selection.
There hadn’t been a lot of pre-draft buzz about McDonald, a one-time All-American who saw his stock fall as a senior. You have to wonder how much two items affected that drop-off: the personal foul penalties as a junior that led to questions about his style of play and the overall defensive schemes implemented in 2012 by Monte Kiffin, which led to his resignation.
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Robert Woods and Matt Barkley both had successful careers at USC while putting up huge numbers, but there doesn’t seem to be a firm opinion from draft experts on where they might get selected or if it will be in the first round. There is even doubt as to which of them will be picked first. For a long while it seemed a sure thing that Barkley would be the first USC player selected but there has been some momentum for Woods lately that could put him in the mix.
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MVP -- QB Cody Kessler: Nobody entered the spring with more to prove, and Kessler made a huge statement by rising to the occasion. Performing on a consistently high level from practice No. 1 all the way to practice No. 15, he showed that while he might not have the size of his two counterparts in the quarterback battle -- Max Wittek and Max Browne -- what he does possess is grit, a remarkable football IQ and the ability to simply get the job done. Referred to as a ‘gamer’ by USC head coach Lane Kiffin on more than one occasion, he was particularly stellar in the team’s scrimmages, putting up big numbers and never throwing a single interception. More than that, he emerged as a leader who the rest of the team really seemed to respond to. -- Johnny Curren
Top offensive performer -- WR Nelson Agholor: With the No. 2 receiver job up for grabs, Agholor asserted himself early as the clear choice. Building off a productive freshman campaign, he shined throughout the spring, and a practice didn’t seem to go by without the Tampa (Fla.) Berkeley Prep product coming up with at least one highlight play that caught everyone’s attention. Showcasing game-breaking ability to go along with reliable hands, he just might allow everyone to get over the loss of Robert Woods just a tad bit sooner than imagined. -- JC
Standout performers: Looking every bit a suitable replacement for departed wide receiver Robert Woods, sophomore wide receiver Nelson Agholor hauled in seven receptions for 116 yards and two touchdowns of 1 and 44 yards, respectively. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler passed for three touchdowns and a game-high 242 yards, completing 15 of 22 pass attempts. Defensively, senior free safety Demetrius Wright had two interceptions while sophomore defensive tackle Leonard Williams had a team-high six tackles.
Biggest play: Early in the first quarter, Kessler, who has battled redshirt sophomore Max Wittek all spring for the starting quarterback position, connected with Lee on a 70-yard touchdown strike.
Biggest surprise: Former Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei wide receiver Victor Blackwell, a redshirt sophomore, accounted for seven receptions for 155 yards and a 29-yard touchdown. Blackwell made a case for himself as the No. 3 receiver, especially after another candidate, junior George Farmer, suffered a season-ending ACL/MCL injury late in the spring.
Spring game final analysis: The heralded receiving duo of Lee and Agholor lived up to the type, accounting for a combined 264 yards and four touchdowns. USC coach Lane Kiffin has said he won’t name a starting quarterback until fall camp, but Kessler had the edge over Wittek on Saturday in passing yardage (242-145) and touchdown passes (3-2). Kessler did not thrown an interception while Wittek tossed two picks. Defensively, the Trojans' secondary looked vulnerable to the pass while the front seven applied good pressure and was stout against the running game. Senior defensive end Morgan Breslin was a force off the edge.
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."
But in a spring marked by change, a new-and-improved Farmer has emerged, performing at a higher and more consistent level than ever, and it couldn’t be happening at a better time. After all, Robert Woods is off to the NFL, and USC coach Lane Kiffin and the Trojans’ offense need capable receivers opposite 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee.
With so much at stake, Farmer is fully aware of the opportunity that lies in front of him.
“This is a big spring for me -- very big,” Farmer said following Saturday’s scrimmage, where his 47-yard reception was one of the day’s highlights.
But Farmer isn’t showing any signs of cracking under the pressure. On the contrary, he seems to be thriving under it.
“George is making plays,” Kiffin said. “We need him to make the hard plays -- down the field, to go up and get the ball and take it away and be physical. We know how fast he is, we know he can run by people, but you have to make those plays, and he’s doing that.”
Of course, it’s not as if Farmer’s play is coming as a complete surprise. Hailing from Gardena (Calif.) Serra, where he played alongside Woods and Lee, he had 65 receptions for 1,514 yards and 21 total touchdowns in his senior year. He arrived at USC in 2011 with arguably more fanfare than either of his high school teammates.
The reason for the sudden turnaround in his level of play is anything but a mystery -- he's the healthiest he's been in what seems like forever.
“I feel great,” said Farmer, a former standout prep sprinter who will compete for the USC track and field team later this spring. “I feel a lot more fluid, my legs are back up under me and I feel like I’m just back to my normal speed. I’m playing fast again. It feels really good to be out here competing with my brothers on the field.”
A thickly built athlete with a 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame, Farmer has come to understand that unlike some players who can just roll out of bed ready to play, he needs to take extra precautions. As such, in addition to working hard this offseason to push his body to the limits, he also made sure that he spent plenty of time in the training room.
“I’m a very heavy-set type of person, and I realized that I have to stay and get rehab -- not just for the sake of rehabbing, but for injury prevention, and staying in there and preventing my injuries before they happen,” Farmer said.
Now finally close to where he wants to be physically, Farmer has been able to more fully develop the other aspects of his game, including the mental side, something USC wide receivers coach Tee Martin has noticed.
“We put him on the board, ask him questions, and he’s on it,” Martin said. “He’s very smart, he understands what to do -- it’s just getting him a lot of reps. You still have to remember that last year was really his first year of college football playing at wide receiver. And now, in his second year … the spring time, this is where guys grow.”
And growing is something Farmer has done plenty of this March, providing at least some evidence suggesting he might be ready to step into the rotation at receiver next fall and make an impact.
But before then, there's still a lot more work to be done, and a lot more to prove on the field.
“Right now I’m just focused on getting out to practice, executing my assignments and doing what the coaches tell me,” Farmer said. "This is going to get me right for fall camp so I can just come out on fire, and we can just move forward from there. Right now, though, the only thing that I’m focused on is spring ball.”
Not only is Barkley a high-profile prospect at the most high-profile position, but pro day marked the first time Barkley had an opportunity to throw for scouts since injuring his shoulder in late November. Since the end of the season Barkley has been spending his time in the South getting treatment on the shoulder and working with former FSU quarterback Chris Weinke at the IMG Academy in Florida.
Before he could get to his throwing work, Barkley ran the 40-yard dash (a hand-timed mark of 4.87) and the shuttle drill, although he slipped in one shuttle rep and came up flexing his right hand. By the time his throwing session started, the hand was fine and all eyes were focused on him.
Barkley threw to a group of five primary players; wide receivers Robert Woods, Brandon Carswell and Travon Patterson, tight end Dominique Byrd and running back Curtis McNeal. It took about three or four throws to realize the shoulder strength was not an issue. There was zip on his passes and he was moving well on a variety of throws. There will always be nitpicking as part of the scouting process for little things that might not have gone as well, but for the most part it was a successful session, with Barkley hitting on 46 of 50 throws.
“It was a great day just to come out and throw the ball around,” Barkley said. “It’s good to be back on SC’s campus for something like this. The shoulder felt fine. The ball slipped on a couple but no worries about that. I’m not worried about anything.”