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USC fans catching a rising star in Marqise Lee

Marqise Lee started his sophomore season the way he ended his freshman year, with an electrifying performance. Trojans Coach Lane Kiffin says Lee will be the best receiver in school history.

September 04, 2012|By Gary Klein

Lane Kiffin said it near the end of last season, repeated it in the spring and summer and didn't back down in the run-up to USC's season opener:

Marqise Lee has a chance to be the best receiver in Trojans history.

Kiffin upped the ante Saturday after the sophomore bolted into the Heisman Trophy discussion with an electrifying performance in USC's 49-10 victory over Hawaii.

"He'll be the best one ever," Kiffin said.

Keyshawn Johnson was the only USC receiver taken No. 1 overall in the NFL draft. Former USC receiver Lynn Swann is a Super Bowl legend and was inducted into the college and pro football halls of fame.

Curtis Conway and Johnnie Morton were All-Americans and first-round draft picks who enjoyed long NFL careers. And Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett were dominating All-Americans for the Trojans.

Last season, All-American Robert Woods set a school record with 111 receptions.

So, might it be a little too early for Lee to be anointed?

"He has a lot of people to climb over," says Johnson, who puts himself at No. 1. "And once he gets to the top — that dude is heavy.

"It's going to be tough to knock him off."

Kiffin apparently saw enough in Lee's last three performances to drop the qualifiers about his potential.

Lee caught eight passes for 187 yards and a touchdown in USC's victory at Oregon last November. In the season finale against UCLA, he had 13 receptions for 224 yards and two touchdowns.

On Saturday, Lee turned a short pass into a 75-yard touchdown on the first play and finished with 10 catches for 197 yards. He also returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.

Former Trojans wideout Keary Colbert, who ranks second behind Jarrett on USC's all-time receptions list, said the 6-foot, 195-pound Lee "can put a foot on the ground and go zero to 60 like no other."

So when Kiffin says Lee will be the best "when it's all said and done," Colbert doesn't doubt that Kiffin truly believes it.

"He's seen a lot of talented receivers," Colbert says. "He's not talking out of the side of his mouth."

Longtime NFL draft guru Gil Brandt says Lee has the tools necessary to surpass other Trojans greats, including the 6-4 Johnson.

"Keyshawn caught a lot of passes because of muscle," Brandt says. "This guy is going to catch passes because he has flat-out more ability and speed."

Lee also is going to catch passes because the Trojans under Kiffin throw the ball far more often than they did under any previous coach.

Swann, for example, played for run-dominated USC teams. In 1973, he led the conference with 42 receptions.

Conway and Morton each caught 49 passes in 1992, Morton had 88 in 1993 and Johnson had 102 in 1995.

Williams had 95 receptions in 2003, Jarrett 91 in 2005.

Then along came Woods and Lee, whose 73 receptions last season ranked him seventh on USC's all-time single-season list.

Kiffin, however, acknowledges that Lee remains a work in progress.

Lee dropped several passes from quarterback Matt Barkley against Hawaii. He was typically humble afterward, citing those miscues and a need to block better rather than his highlight-reel plays.

Barkley also defended his teammate's second-quarter show of emotion.

After Barkley threw low on a pass that fell incomplete, Lee gestured for him to throw the ball higher. In the second half, Barkley barked at the receiver for a route-running error.

"It's nothing personal," Barkley said. "He knows what I'm expecting from him. And if I don't put a ball where it needs to be, I expect him to get on me."

With Lee joining Barkley in the Heisman buzz, the Trojans will be in the spotlight Saturday against Syracuse at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

Johnson will be in the stands rooting for his alma mater and assessing Trojans receivers for himself. He likes what he sees from Lee and is eager to follow his progress.

"Marqise Lee is going to be fine," he says, "but we can't put him in the college football hall of fame just yet."

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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