How USC Should Handle Marqise Lee's Fall Practice Workload After Injury Scare

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistAugust 12, 2013

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 08: Marqise Lee #9 of the USC Trojans returns a kick against the Syracuse Orange in the first half of a game at MetLife Stadium on September 8, 2012 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images)
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

"No one I met at this time ... failed to assure me that a man who is hit through the neck and survives is the luckiest creature alive. I could not help thinking that it would be even luckier not to be hit at all."

          –George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

USC survived a hit through the neck (or at least the shoulder) this week when it found out that star receiver Marqise Lee, winner of last year's Biletnikoff Award, had suffered merely a bone bruise after landing awkwardly on his right shoulder in practice.

The injury appeared more serious at the time, leaving Lee in visible pain on the field and rendering him unable to leave without the assistance of trainers. Per USA Today, he was seen wearing a sling in the locker room that day and missed the next morning's practice.

But according to CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman, Lane Kiffin announced Saturday night that Lee was day-to-day with a simple bone bruise. He said he expects Lee back on the practice field soon and likened the whole saga to losing—and then finding—his wallet.

That analogy, however, though intended as a compliment, actually undersells Lee's importance to the team. He finished last season with 118 catches, 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns—good for first, second and third in the country. And that was as a sophomore.

In 2013, he's being counted on to ease the transition of a team that—despite having no starting quarterback—thinks (and always will think) it can win the conference. He is perhaps the most indispensable non-quarterback in all of college football; at his best, no one else in the sport is capable of doing what he does.

Lee's absence wouldn't be like Kiffin losing his wallet. It would be like losing the key to the vault where he keeps his life savings.

In Sunday night's "season" premiere of Breaking Bad (spoiler alert), Walt tells his brother-in-law/DEA pursuer to "tread lightly." The same advice might be proffered to Kiffin in the wake of this injury scare. Even if Lee is healthy enough to play in a full-contact practice, perhaps he shouldn't be doing so for the foreseeable future.

During the (roughly) 24 hours between Lee's injury and diagnosis, a state of sheer panic secreted from southern California. That reaction was a telling token of his importance to the team. Especially after losing third receiver George Farmer to a torn ACL—and regardless of how good freshman Darreus Rogers has looked in camp—Lee is the linchpin of USC's success. 

The Trojans consider themselves "lucky" for Lee's minor wound, but again, as Orwell would no doubt agree, they would have been luckier to avoid one altogether. If fate was actually on their side, Lee wouldn't be forced to the sidelines at all. There are other superstar players in college football and Lee is the first one to endure an injury scare this fall. How is that good fortune?

You can't tempt lucklessness when it comes to find you. You have to suck up your pride and kowtow before it, give in to all of its demands. Prior to Lee's injury, there was a way to have him practice in full without ignoring his health. But now the options are far more black and white. Kiffin is either playing it safe or pushing some chips in; there is hardly any room for a middle ground.

Lee should put as much time as possible between his bruised shoulder and his next live hit—play it as safe as he can until those hits start to count. The longer he lets it heal, the less likely it is to become a nagging issue; and the less likely it is to become a nagging issue, the more likely USC is to reach its goals. 

The counter-argument, of course, would be one of peak form and rust. He needs the next few weeks to ramp up his game. If Lee is limited in practice, disallowed from taking live hits, how will he fare when USC opens in Week 1? How will he segue to the regular season when his body is still in preseason form?

But USC isn't Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, LSU, TCU or Virginia Tech. Its opening opponent isn't a fellow ranked squad—a legitimate threat to win—but rather the Rainbow Warriors of Hawaii. Its first combatant didn't make a bowl last year but rather went 3-9, including a 49-10 loss to the Trojans in Week 1.

If Lee needs to be eased back into action, Aug. 29 in Honolulu is the time and the place to do it. He can re-inure himself to the rigor of taking hits and the trial of running full-speed. And even if he rusted during his time away from contact, however unlikely that may be, the Trojans wouldn't (or at least shouldn't) run any serious risk of losing.

If they did, Lee's health would be the least of their concerns.

When you live through a shot to the neck, you don't go chasing another firefight. When you sidestep jail-time with a plea bargain, you don't go robbing another liquor store. And when you survive a scary shoulder injury to your star player, you don't go throwing him right back onto the field.

Bad news comes in threes, as the superstitious suggest, and the Trojans are one out-for-the-season receiver short of their quotaFate hath given Lee a second chance and she doesn't expect to be tempted again so soon.

Even if it impedes his preparation for the season, that impediment would be slight. Lee has two years of high-level experience behind him. Non-contact drills and a game against Hawaii should be enough for him to reach full speed. Playing it safe for the rest of August won't make him sluggish for the first Pac-12 game in September.

What would render Lee ineffective is bodily harm—what the Trojans thought he might have endured after Friday's practice. No matter how minor this injury turned out to be, its presence cannot be ignored. The alarm bells it sounded cannot be un-rung.

Keeping Lee out of practice might be seen as circumspect or coddling, but really it's just plain smart. There's no good way to mitigate his risk during the season; at that point, the que sera sera approach reigns supreme. 

But until then, "what will be" is only what the Trojans make it. Playing things uber-cautious with Lee is the best way to ensure his utility for the season. They've played with fire and emerged with nothing but a sunburn; but they probably shouldn't go dancing with flames again.

At least not until they have to.