"I can tell you this, he's my first priority on the recruiting trail. Marqise is a six-star recruit for USC right now."
That was USC Trojans receivers coach Tee Martin’s answer after he was recently asked about the future of his top pass-catching pupil: Marqise Lee.
Martin may be known as one of college football’s hottest up-and-coming recruiters, but even he knows that convincing the standout wideout to return for one more year will be a formidable task.
The big burning question surrounding the Trojans program right now is will Lee come back?
It’s a question that he’ll reportedly answer after the team’s bowl game. At this point, though, the real debate is should he return?
Before the start of the 2013 season, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that this would be the record-setting receiver’s final farewell campaign before leaving the land of Troy for the riches of the NFL. Following a sensational sophomore season in 2012, in which he led the nation with 118 catches and took home the prestigious Biletnikoff Award, he was praised this offseason, lauded as the premier prospect at his position and widely projected to be a top-10 pick in the 2014 draft.
Unfortunately, injuries took their took toll on the star junior this year, and he was unable to put together the type of dominant performance that many were expecting following his spectacular breakthrough season last year.
After dealing with a shoulder injury during preseason camp, Lee was plagued by lingering knee problems throughout the 2013 season. He just never seemed to be close to 100 percent. In 10 games of action, he hauled in just 50 passes for 673 yards and found the end zone just twice.
On top of the injuries, Lee had to deal with a midseason head-coaching switch and highly inconsistent play from the quarterback position. Overall, while it may not have been a truly lost season, it certainly wasn’t the year that the highly touted receiver was hoping for.
That's why the former heralded 4-star recruit, who rose up from a tumultuous upbringing to become one of college football's most thrilling playmakers, is now left to make a life-impacting decision.
Declare or repair?
Calling Lee’s draft stock "damaged" may be a bit of an overstatement, considering that NFL scouts know exactly what he’s capable of when healthy.
USC’s 2012 game film didn’t all of a sudden magically disappear. Pro personnel evaluators still vividly remember those seven double-digit-catch performances from last year, including an awe-inspiring 16-catch, 345-yard evisceration of Arizona’s secondary.
Unfortunately, while the 6’0’’, 195-pound junior was struggling through an injury-mired campaign this year, other top underclassmen receiver prospects such as Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, Penn State’s Allen Robinson, LSU’s Jarvis Landry, Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin and Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks all captured the attention of scouts with their outstanding performances.
Lee’s stock hasn’t been damaged, but it surely has taken a hit, mostly due to the fact that other big-name receiver prospects in the 2014 class have raised their level of play and shown that they have the skills to be just as effective at the next level.
Forgotten about? No.
Downgraded a bit? Yes.
Now, that once-foregone conclusive decision that Lee would enter the 2014 draft and be a high first-round pick has all of a sudden become somewhat cloudy.
Luckily, Lee still has plenty of backers and supporters, even after his disappointing 2013 campaign.
UCLA coach Jim Mora has compared Lee to NFL legend Marvin Harrison.
NFL.com’s Albert Breer quoted an NFL scout, who called Lee a “stud” and another, who said he “Had the skills to dominate.”
NFL.com’s Charles Davis said he has the potential to be “scary good.”
Still, it’s Lee’s position coach Tee Martin—someone with whom the receiver has developed a close relationship and who will obviously be trying to sway him to return for his senior year—who summed it up best.
In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, Martin said, "My deal for him is, do you want to come back and try to see if you want to be a top-five pick? If just being a first-rounder is good for you, then go ahead.'"
Becoming a potential top-five pick in the 2015 draft or being a first-round choice in the upcoming 2014 draft is what’s on the table at this point.
Lee certainly knows the hazards that await a star player if he chooses to return to school for his senior year. He saw it firsthand with a former teammate: QB Matt Barkley, who passed up the chance to potentially be a first-round pick in the 2012 draft in order to return to USC for his final season.
Barkley was lavished with praise and built up to be the preseason No. 1-overall prospect of his class. However, after a disappointing showing as a senior, he lost out on millions, dropping to the fourth round of the 2013 draft.
And that’s the risk. There’s the rub.
Lee knows he’s ready for the NFL right now. He knows he really has nothing left to prove on the collegiate level. He knows that even after a subpar season, he’ll most likely still hear his name called on the first night of the 2014 draft if he chooses to declare.
Still, there’s temptation lurking in Los Angeles. The temptation to reassert his dominance next season.
The temptation to repair his reputation as the premier player at his position.
The temptation to end his collegiate career on a high note.
He’s going to have two of the sport’s most convincing recruiters—Martin and newly crowned USC head coach Steve Sarkisian—pulling out all the stops to try to persuade him to come back and fulfill the destiny that was forecast for him before the 2013 season started.
Will he listen?
We’ll find out.