Marqise Lee leads Southern Cal in receptions by a large margin. His 17 receptions and 221 yards are more than double that of the team's second-leading receiver, Nelson Agholor.
Yet, a look at the national rankings at CFBStats.com shows Lee is out of the top 50 in total receiving yards, receiving yards per game and receptions per game. It will be up to head coach Lane Kiffin to get more creative to ensure he gets his playmaker as many touches as possible.
Although his yards per catch are similar, 12.5 in 2012 and 13.0 in 2013, Marqise's other stats have markedly declined. Through three games a season ago, Lee was sitting at 29 catches for 363 yards.
With 142 fewer receiving yards, Lee is representative of USC's offense in 2013. It has tons of talent but is being held back by erratic quarterback play.
It must be noted that USC opened things up against Boston College and brought a whole new approach to the field. As "Your Best 11" noted in discussing Kiffin, the Trojans worked in motions, shotgun, bunch formations and tight splits to jump-start the offense.
The result was 521 yards of offense—a balanced attack that featured 257 yards rushing yards and 264 yards passing. However, Lee recorded 90 yards on only two catches, one of which was an 80-yard touchdown. Quarterback Cody Kessler spread the ball around to seven other receivers in going 15-for-17, with four other Trojans checking in with at least two receptions, led by Agholor's four catches.
Lee is a tremendous decoy. The junior opens up the field for the rest of his teammates in passing—and some rushing—situations. Defenses key on Lee; they roll coverage toward him to make sure he doesn't get loose.
As USC gets into the thick of its schedule, Lee has to work both as a decoy, as he did against Boston College, and a legitimate playmaker. Kiffin took Lee off punt-return duty against BC. That is a wise move since it will protect Lee's overall durability and effectiveness in the offense.
This year's Trojans are not the team to simply rise up and throw 50-50 balls to Lee downfield. The team can't afford to risk turnovers, sacks or incompletions that put them in difficult down-and-distance situations.
Which means that, from a timing standpoint, USC has to pick its spots to go downfield. For a team that is going to make hay by occasionally breaking its tendencies, that means mixing in shorter to intermediate passes on first down and taking shots deep when favorable scenarios present themselves.
It also is going to mean continuing to be more creative with run sets versus pass sets and creating space for Lee through a variety of formations.
Here we see Lee lined up tight to the formation, leaving plenty of room outside for him to operate. Defenses do not set up to cover receivers that do not exist. In this case, no one is aligned across from Lee because defending grass takes players away from defending bodies.
As the play rolls on, Lee pushes vertically and stems inside, holding the defender tight to the hash. Kessler delivers the ball on Lee's outside break, which gives the receiver a lot of space with just one man to beat for a big gain.
Another pattern that the Trojans can run to get Lee the ball is the crossing route, as tracking Lee both in zone coverage and across the formation is difficult.
By lining Lee tight to the formation and leaning on play-action to give Kessler more time to throw, Kiffin can work the intermediate area with his star receiver. This is especially true for plays in which Agholor pushes deep and the tight end occupies the shallow defender. Nothing complex, but the presence of a strong running game and Agholor commanding the attention of the safeties can result in Lee finding holes in the intermediate range of coverage. (Or Kessler can hit Agholor for a big play.)
With Cody Kessler getting more comfortable in the offense, look for the slant—something that was absent at times against Boston College—to be featured more consistently in the Trojans' passing attack. The same goes for the quick screen and the smoke route at the line of scrimmage.
The quick screens and such are essentially long handoffs that should supplement the USC running game and force corners to be alert for short routes, since with Lee on the receiving end, even a quick pass can go the distance if a defensive back is caught sleeping.
However, the Trojans should not rely entirely on these types of passes in order to get their star wideout involved, as they did against Washington State.
Rather, sprinkling in smoke routes, screens and slants should be sufficient in getting their best offensive weapon untracked. Forcing him to be a full-time decoy or go long stretches without touching the ball does USC's offense no favor—it must keep Lee engaged.
Lee is not going to have the same year that he had in 2012. Odds are that the junior, on pace for a 68-catch and 884-yard season, does not eclipse the 80-catch mark this year, let alone the 118 grabs that he had a year ago with Matt Barkley. But again, Kiffin and Co. will have to use Lee as more than just an offense-opening decoy.
Lee is the best wide receiver in college football and keeping him happy with a solid diet of footballs will go a long way, if only to remind defenses that he is more than merely a hypothetical threat.