USC Trojans: Robert Woods
When former USC wide receiver Marqise Lee walked across the Radio City Music Hall stage last month after being selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the second round of the NFL draft, his high school position coach cracked a wide smile from across the country, knowing yet another of his pupils had accomplished a lifelong goal.
Kimbell hardly had any time to bask in the moment, though. Just six picks after Lee came off the board, the Seattle Seahawks took former Colorado receiver Paul Richardson, another graduate of Gardena (Calif.) Junipero Serra, where Kimbell has coached for a dozen years.
1. DL Delvon Simmons: This 6-foot-6, 300-pound transfer from Texas Tech could have an immediate opportunity to step into the starting lineup to replace George Uko. Simmons started 13 games for the Red Raiders in 2012 and has 40 career tackles under his belt, along with two sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. At the very least, he is expected to be a key part of the interior D-line rotation next fall.
3. OL Jordan Simmons: It has been a rocky road for Simmons at USC. His freshman year started with knee surgery prior to the season but he came back in the second half of the season and was named offensive service team player of the year. Simmons was showing promise last fall as a road-grading guard until he hurt his knee trying to catch a pass before a practice and will be sidelined for spring.
4. WR George Farmer: It seems like forever since Farmer came to USC as the top-ranked receiver in the country. It has been so long that his high school teammates -- Robert Woods and Marqise Lee -- have already wrapped up their college careers and will be playing in the NFL next year. Farmer, meanwhile, will be hoping that his knee rehab goes well enough to allow him back on the field to regain the momentum he was showing last spring before suffering the injury.
5. RB D.J. Morgan: Another player who has battled knee injuries, Morgan has two career starts under his belt with 364 yards on 83 carries and one touchdown. There is a clean slate waiting for Morgan when he returns -- Morgan had fallen in Lane Kiffin’s doghouse for fumbling -- but there is also a deep and talented stable of backs to compete with for carries. The one thing Morgan brings to the table is speed and if he is healthy enough to offer that he will have a chance to crack the rotation.
Marqise Lee announced tonight that he would be leaving school early to enter the NFL draft -- a move that surprised nobody -- and it gives a chance to look back and appreciate a player who arguably ranks as the most dynamic receiver in school history.
USC has had some explosive receivers through the years. Hal Bedsole is a College Football Hall of Famer, Lynn Swann an NFL Hall of Famer, and Lee’s former high school teammate, Robert Woods, sits atop the USC career receptions list.
But Lee offered something different. His combination of athletic ability and will to compete not only led him to the 2012 Biletnikoff Award -- the first in school history -- but at one point had former USC receiver and current ESPN NFL analyst Keyshawn Johnson saying that he had a chance to go down as the greatest college receiver ever.
What caught Carroll’s eye was Lee’s athleticism. He’s not an overly big guy -- he is listed at 6-foot, 195 pounds -- but he has a chiseled frame and can be aggressive and acrobatic at the same time. He is enough of an athlete that he went out for the track team on a part-time basis in his freshman year at USC while still taking part in spring ball, advancing to the NCAA Championships in the long jump.
That athleticism created a bit of a dilemma for Lee coming out of high school. Many people in the recruiting world -- this writer included -- projected Lee as a defensive back, a position that would have fit his skill set to a tee. Most schools wanted him on the defensive side of the ball, but Lee was up front with schools about his desire to play offense. The Trojans eventually agreed to put him at receiver and former coach Lane Kiffin said, “If we hadn’t done that, he would have been playing at Oregon.”
The impact Lee had as a freshman was immediate. He offered a complement to Woods on the other side, after Woods had already established himself as a true freshman. In their first year together at USC in 2011, Woods led the way with 111 catches -- a new school record -- and 15 touchdowns, but Lee wasn’t far behind with 73 catches and 11 scores. Both players also went over 1,000 receiving yards.
The roles were reversed in 2012. Woods dealt with some nagging injuries but still produced at a high-enough level that allowed him to leave USC with the career receptions mark. But, as far as big years go for a receiver, it was all about Lee.
His numbers in 2012 were simply sublime. Lee led the nation with 118 catches -- a new school and Pac-12 record -- while his 1,721 receiving yards were good for another conference mark. Perhaps the most impressive stat was the fact that his 15 touchdowns (14 receiving, 1 kickoff return) averaged over 40 yards per score (40.8). He was named an ESPN All-American in addition to winning the Biletnikoff and was expected to be one of college football’s shining stars in 2013.
Things didn’t exactly work out that way for Lee and the Trojans, as a pair of injuries prevented a big season. First it was a shoulder injury suffered in spring ball that he recovered from in time to play in the season opener. He wasn’t 100 percent, but Trojans fans hoped that he’d be healthy enough to play at a high level. Then a knee injury hit, and that was an issue that stuck with him the rest of the season.
There also was the coaching change. Lee had a good relationship with Kiffin, a coach who believed in him and got him the ball. Lee handled the transition well, carrying himself as a team leader both on and off the field. Through all the turmoil, Lee was always out front with a smile and positive attitude.
By the time the showdown with Stanford rolled around in mid-November, it was clear that this was not going to be Lee’s season due to the injuries. He was giving the team what he had physically, and at no point was that more evident than late in the game, when he came through with a catch on a fourth-and-2 which led to the game-winning field goal for the Trojans. Lee had left the field just two plays earlier after getting hit in the shin, but the grit he showed to come back and make the play was something he will long be remembered for.
Fittingly, Lee was able to go out with a bang in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. He led the Trojans with seven catches for 118 yards and a pair of touchdown catches. It was the kind of game that USC fans had come to expect from Lee in 2012, and it was good to see him end his career in that fashion.
There is no sadness within the Trojans family tonight with Lee’s decision to leave, only appreciation and gratitude for what he accomplished. The recent injuries might not have allowed him to shatter the marks that were expected, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Lee is as ready for the next level as anybody in the country. Whoever drafts him is going to be getting one dynamic player, that’s for sure.
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.