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USC FOOTBALL

USC's Robert Woods, Marqise Lee a dangerous duo

Woods and Lee give Matt Barkley two of the most explosive targets in college football history. But there is little ego over who's better.

September 14, 2012|By Gary Klein
  • Robert Woods and Marqise Lee celebrate after a Woods touchdown reception.
Robert Woods and Marqise Lee celebrate after a Woods touchdown reception. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Robert Woods sticks a hand in front of Marqise Lee's face. He yanks on his shoulder pads, pushes him from behind.

With Coach Lane Kiffin regularly opining that Lee will be the greatest receiver in USC history, Woods' post-practice actions might hint at frustration boiling over.

Instead, he's helping his younger teammate improve, offering game-style distractions during a passing drill.

"That's where the leadership comes out," Lee says.

Woods and Lee could be on track to set a new college football standard for receiver tandems. And they're doing it without an apparent need for ego gratification that might sabotage the Trojans, who have a Heisman Trophy front-runner in quarterback Matt Barkley.

Lee, a 6-foot, 195-pound sophomore, started the season with a spectacular performance against Hawaii. Woods, a 6-1, 190-pound junior, reminded he should not to be forgotten with a dynamic game against Syracuse.

The duo enters Saturday's Pac-12 Conference opener at Stanford having caught all but 12 of the 49 passes completed this season by USC. Woods and Lee also have scored nine of the Trojans' 13 touchdowns.

Stanford Coach David Shaw has described the duo as the best wide receiver combination he has ever seen in college football. "Not even close," he told Stanford's website.

Managing that kind of talent could be problematic if Woods and Lee spent much time worrying about their roles. But the former Gardena Serra High teammates shrug off references to statistics.

"We focus on blocking," Lee says.

Lee, a freshman All-American last season with 73 catches, has 21 receptions, four for touchdowns. He also returned a kickoff for a touchdown.

Woods, an All-American who caught a USC-record 111 passes last season, has 16 receptions, four for touchdowns.

"Do they need to be exactly balanced?" asks Kiffin, the Trojans' play-caller. "No. But when you have great players you do need to get them the ball."

Receivers coach Tee Martin, who played quarterback for Tennessee when it won a national championship in 1998, says, "Coverage dictates where the ball goes."

And Barkley reads the coverage.

"It's not my job to keep them happy," Barkley says. "It's my job to get them the ball if they're open."

Together, Woods and Lee have been exploiting holes in defenses for most of the last five years.

Scott Altenberg, who coached them at Serra, says ego has never been an issue for either player.

A few years ago, for example, Serra played Carson. Woods grew up in Carson and, Altenberg says, naturally wanted to have a big night.

"I think he caught two passes — we used him as a decoy," Altenberg says. "But after the game, if you saw the way he was acting, you would have thought it was Robert who had the big game."

Woods was the centerpiece of USC's offense in 2010. Lee arrived in 2011 and they became a productive, often spectacular dual threat.

Though USC has had outstanding combinations in the last 10 years — Mike Williams-Keary Colbert, Dwayne Jarrett-Steve Smith — Woods and Lee might be closest in talent and temperament to the Curtis Conway-Johnnie Morton combination of 1992.

Conway and Morton both became first-round NFL draft picks and enjoyed lengthy pro careers. But egos did not get in the way during a season when each caught 49 passes from quarterback Rob Johnson.

"We looked at it like we were a two-headed dragon," Morton says.

Morton had been a receiver at South Torrance, Conway a quarterback at Hawthorne. Morton was a technician, Conway a playmaker who also returned kicks.

"How many passes I caught was never an issue for me," Conway says. "I knew I was going to touch the ball before anyone on the offense anyway as a kick returner. I was going to have my opportunities to help the team win."

The second-ranked Trojans are winning, and Kiffin continues to stoke Woods' competitive fire by saying Lee will be the best in Trojans history.

"He does everything for motivation," Lee says. "Like, 'I'm going to say this so Robert can be like, 'That's crazy!'"

Kiffin agrees, to a point. "I say that because I believe that can be true," he says. "But I think also that Robert hears that."

Oh yes he does.

"Most definitely," Woods says. "I still want to prove I'm the big dog."

Meantime, he acts like the big brother, helping Lee and other Trojans receivers.

After Woods muscles Lee during their distraction drill, they walk toward waiting reporters.

School officials hand each player a cellphone.

Woods splits wide to the left, Lee to the right.

As if on cue, both drop to one knee in nearly identical stances and put the phone to their ear for radio interviews.

They are the talk of college football.

And by the time they are done, perhaps a Trojans tandem for the ages.

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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