Lee leaves great memories for USC fans

Boy, was he good.

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.

Ironically, Lee was known more for his prowess as a basketball defensive stopper when his athletic career first took off at Gardena (Calif.) Serra. Lee was part of a state-title winning team on the hoops court while playing a supportive role on the gridiron behind team stars such as Woods and George Farmer. But during his junior year, then-USC coach Pete Carroll paid a visit to a Serra practice. Within minutes he was pointing to Lee and asking “Who is that?”

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.