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USC is on the receiving end of Gardena Serra's work ethic

Three Gardena Serra defensive backs – Robert Woods, Marqise Lee and George Farmer — are reunited on the Trojans squad, but as receivers. Lee is on track to start opposite Woods in USC's opener next week.

August 26, 2011|By Gary Klein
  • Oregon's Talmadge Jackson III knocks down a pass intended for USC receiver Robert Woods at the Coliseum on Oct. 30, 2010.
Oregon's Talmadge Jackson III knocks down a pass intended for USC… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

As football coach at Gardena Serra High, Scott Altenberg has developed dozens of players who earned college scholarships.

It didn't take him long to recognize that Robert Woods, Marqise Lee and George Farmer would keep the tradition going.

He just never envisioned all three Serra stars would end up as USC receivers.

"I'm a UCLA graduate," Altenberg said, laughing, "so that would have been a nightmare, not a vision."

USC Coach Lane Kiffin clearly saw the possibilities.

Woods arrived as part of Kiffin's first recruiting class in 2010, quickly establishing himself with precise route-running and an uncommonly mature approach. He was a starter from the opener, led the Trojans in receptions and kickoff returns and was a freshman All-American.

Lee and Farmer arrived this summer and reunited with Woods, their role model and mentor.

"It feels like old times," said Lee, who is on track to start opposite Woods when the Trojans open against Minnesota next week.

It was only two years ago that Woods, Lee and Farmer roamed the field together as part of the same position group.

Each displayed sure hands, outstanding speed and a knack for making spectacular plays — as defensive backs.

When he wasn't catching touchdown passes, Woods teamed with Lee at safety for a Serra team that won the California Division III title. Farmer mainly played receiver as a junior but also filled in at cornerback.

This season, or perhaps next, all three could be on the field at the same time as receivers.

"All of those guys are fast, and Marqise and George are learning to run great routes," USC quarterback Matt Barkley said. "I think Woody sets the tone."

Woods, 6-1 and 180 pounds, played running back during his Pop Warner days in Carson and was the quarterback on Serra's freshman team. By the end of his first season, he was a varsity safety.

Altenberg moved him to receiver as a sophomore, setting up what would eventually become a line of succession to USC.

Farmer enrolled at Serra before the next season and Lee arrived in time to play football as a sophomore. Farmer observed Woods intently — following him on the field, imitating his footwork and competing against him in drills.

Lee also took mental notes.

"Watching Robert really stuck with those guys," Altenberg said. "Like, 'Oh, I see how it works.'"

Farmer made an immediate impact, moving from Serra's freshman team to the varsity in his first season.

"George is just a freak," Altenberg said.

The 6-1, 205-pound Farmer is the most physical of the Serra trio. Many predicted that Kiffin would fast-track him into the starting lineup, especially after he assigned Barkley to be his training-camp roommate.

Farmer made an impressive sideline catch in the Trojans' first scrimmage, but he has been slowed by nagging injuries and a concussion. This week, he has worked at times as the scout-team quarterback to help prepare the Trojans for Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray, a converted receiver.

"Coming in here with high expectations, there was lot of pressure," Farmer said. "But things don't always go smoothly. I'm just going to keep working hard and make sure I work my way to the top."

Lee's experience as a high jumper and long jumper is obvious. No USC player has made more leaping and diving catches than the lithe, 6-foot, 190-pound Lee, who also played basketball at Serra and came out of high school generally regarded as a better defensive prospect in football.

"I'm still shocked he's not playing defense," Altenberg said.

Lee, apparently, would have been happy either way.

"I was sort of leaning toward receiver, but I asked Coach Kiffin and said it didn't really matter which I played," Lee said.

Lee's ascent has deflected some of the focus from Woods. The sophomore is playing through a high ankle sprain and sore elbow while tutoring the younger receivers, mainly by example.

"I've been helping George and Marqise," he said, "but they both know their information."

Lee is looking forward to the day when he, Woods and Farmer are lined up for a play at the same time.

"Hopefully, throughout the years we get better with a lot of work and it comes true," he said.

Kiffin will not be surprised.

"They're all so disciplined," he said. "All they do is work."

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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