Marqise Lee vs. Nelson Agholor: Who Will Graduate USC with Better Career?
The inclusion of USC's Marqise Lee in the Jadeveon Clowney-Teddy Bridgewater conversation was not too far-fetched just a year ago.
He was perennially projected as a top-10 NFL draft pick come 2014, and guys like David Moulton of naplesnews.com wished he could be granted eligibility sooner. Such head inflation was premature, as Lee witnessed his stock fall throughout the season due to early drops, nagging injuries and the stigma of Lane Kiffin-influenced origins.
While his most recent performance in the Las Vegas Bowl helped save himself from possible draft-board disappointment, unlike Matt Barkley and Robert Woods, the void left behind in its wake may have allowed Nelson Agholor to surpass him in the ranks of USC lore.
Southern California officially appointed itself "Wide Receiver U" this past June, and the names on its admissions list boast a quantitative argument at least. Transitory success to the professional level this century has been short-lived (Steve Smith), marginal (Keary Colbert; Mike Williams; Damian Williams) or non-existent (Dwayne Jarrett; Patrick Turner; Ronald Johnson). Nonetheless, USC's capability to continuously spit out Biletnikoff candidates and stars in the confines of the Coliseum is indicative of its mainstay offensive prowess.
In order to fit among the lineage, of course, every snap lined up as the flanker or in the slot is invaluable. Lee possesses the edge, having played first, but is there enough time for Agholor to catch up?
As the nation awaits the junior's decision on whether or not to forgo his senior campaign, do Lee's numbers and accolades stack up to be insurmountable? Has Agholor already capitalized on Lee's absence and subsequent head start in leading the Trojans offense as Cody Kessler's primary target? Do scouting reports and box scores outweigh highlights and off-field factors? Who will ultimately be remembered as the superior cardinal n' gold receiver?
It's time for another decathlon presented by the Italian Trojan.
Agholor showcased consistency in an offense settling into itself (his ghostliness against Washington State can be blamed on USC's ineptitude as a whole) and provided an additional boost as ESPN's All-Pac-12 punt returner. If Lee was healthy and present on the field for three more games, though, he would've probably eclipsed 1,000 yards for his third consecutive year.
Lee could graduate today with more receiving yards (3,695) than anyone else in school history. In 2012, he obliterated the Pac-12 record for most receiving yards in a game (345 off of 16 catches) at Arizona, and returned kicks for a conference-best 251 yards versus Oregon the following week. Both efforts were devalued by losses, but Lee was more of a winner as a freshman (73 receptions, 1,143 YDS, 11 TDS) than the younger third-string Agholor (19 receptions, 340 YDS, 2 TDS) could ever dream.
Should Lee walk and Agholor produce another two full seasons, there is an outside chance to threaten those in Steve Sarkisian's spread attack. For now, math is power.
If everything is bigger in Texas, then both of these wideouts should move there. Neither one of them stands that tall or large—both measure to be 6'0'' and Lee's 190 pounds slightly outmuscle Agholor's 185 pounds.
Weight is welcome to add layers of physicality, but as the prevalence of minute receivers grows at the next level, Lee's lack of size is mitigated by his speed and explosiveness.
As WalterFootball.com's Charlie Campbell observes:
There is no doubt that Lee is an explosive receiver with the speed to stretch a defense vertically. He is a threat to score on any reception and turn short catches into long runs down the field. Lee is tough to get a hold of in the open field as he consistently jukes by defenders and changes direction to gain more yards.
If Kiffin wasn't so blinded by bubble screens, Lee's route-running and hands would be equally raved about. Play-calling in general was one of the few things holding back the explosive scouting reports, but NFL media analyst Bucky Brooks still believes Lee is the main receiver attraction of the upcoming draft.
Agholor was recruited based upon that prototypical Southern California agility and playmaking ability, but according to Alicia de Artola of Reign of Troy, he has not developed at a similar rate. "He logged just two 100-yard games and his failure to catch a touchdown in any of USC’s losses is telling."
Lee took over games. Agholor merely took over this version of USC's offense, with no NFL buzz to speak of yet.
The unified duo of Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor shone no brighter than in Vegas. Highlights were reminiscent of the days of...well, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.
Lee exhibited his return to health and glory, but Agholor truly stole the show, fighting on through butterfingers and performing his best David Tyree impression en route to two memorable and electrifying scores.
The strides Agholor made this season are more visible on tape. Lee, conversely, can be seen waving some red flags, most notably in Hawaii to begin the year. He broke character with a fumbled punt return in the second quarter, a dropped pass in the fourth quarter and consequential sideline frustration.
Lapses of focus and composure are spared recognition in box scores, and in the pits of adversity, it turns out there is some shred of Dez Bryant after all.
Let's hope Agholor remains an innocent little flower throughout the remainder of his collegiate career.
Matt Barkley/Robert Woods Era
Expressing frustration amid injuries and Kessler's growing pains is understandable from the perspective of a lost Heisman breakthrough. Perhaps Lee was simply grieving from the departure of his true quarterback.
There's no All-American notoriety and hardware without Barkley throwing him the football, and that's when Lee was regarded as the nation's most prolific wideout. Agholor, meanwhile, failed to emerge from the depth chart the same way Lee stole the spotlight away from Woods.
According to his bio on the Trojans website, "Lee's and Woods' combined receptions (184) and receiving yards (2,435) in 2011 were the most by a pair of Trojans in a season." The tandem was unable to bring home postseason victories, but their tenure certainly wasn't vacated.
Unless Kessler evolves into Barkley and Agholor duplicates success on his own, history must be learned from before being repeated.
The concluding chapters of Lee's USC career will always be footnoted with a sense of wonder. A nagging sprained knee forced him out of contests against Arizona, Utah and Colorado, and considerably reduced his means of contribution in the games he did suit up for.
Though Vincent Bonsignore of the Los Angeles Daily News reminds us how Lee received the Trojans' superlative for "most courageous player," Agholor was more sufficient in overcoming his ailments. In the same Utah game Lee missed, Agholor recorded six catches for 97 yards and a score in an otherwise low-scoring 19-3 triumph. In spite of an injured rib suffered the previous week against Notre Dame, he sprawled out on a pass attempt for a big gain (which just skimmed his fingerprints) as though he were a PF Chang's China Bistro with ribs to spare.
Everyone on the Trojans roster was hurting at one point or another—it's the tagline of their 2013 season. Agholor made evident his reliability, as he was only one of eight players to start in all 14 games: Four of them were defensive (Devon Kennard, Hayes Pullard, Josh Shaw and George Uko); two survived the epic slasher movie that was the offensive line (Max Tuerk and Chad Wheeler); and then there were Kessler and Agholor, iron men who grasped the opportunity to improve and orchestrate this offense.
This is not to say that Lee's work ethic is questionable or reckless, and injuries are often the most impossible to predict in the realm of sports. So long as Agholor's good luck holds up for another season or two, there's potential to fill the empty spaces Lee left blank.
What if Marqise Lee is offered an hour-long ESPN special, hosts a 58-minute bonfire sponsored by Oregon's uniforms, and then ultimately declares...that he's staying at USC for one more year?
The fact that Lee is inevitably leaving allots for the wiggle room in this debate. He saw firsthand the ramifications of Barkley's decision to surrender a first-round grade, losing momentum and his clean bill of health as he succumbed to the effects of the unknown. An identical fate was realized by South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery in 2011, who saw his Biletnikoff-finalist production from the previous season (88 receptions, 1,517 YDS, 9 TDS) plummet back down to earth (49 receptions, 762 YDS, 8 TDS) and into the second round.
Then again, Jeffery's recent prosperity with the Chicago Bears could shine light on Lee's options. Were he to shock the football universe and further rebuild his momentum, bulking up in the weight room and chasing Southern California elitism along the way, the legacy lamination would pay huge dividends for his professional aspirations if everything fell into place. Life happens, though, and sometimes it's simply better to move on when you can.
Then there's the development of USC's wide receiver hierarchy. Lee benefited from looking up to Woods on the depth chart, as Woods did behind Ronald Johnson. Whether it be Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett, or Patrick Turner and Damian Williams, the latest great pass-catching Trojans all had one another to rely on.
Contrarily, though numbers suggest that Agholor did not quite reap the same rewards of his double-covered predecessors, he poses the unique argument that his productivity arrived without the serious second or third option of Darreus Rogers or Xavier Grimble warranting attention away from the defense.
Lee's absence granted Agholor an early season of reps as the No. 1 target, and that experience is especially key if he takes advantage of all four years of his eligibility.
Sark vs. Kiff
Whether that phantom players-only meeting following the Washington State debacle truly transpired or not, riffs between Marqise Lee and ex-coach Lane Kiffin were evident.
Kiffin's pro-style West Coast approach should have aided Lee's transition to the NFL. Instead it proved to be constricting and probably detrimental to the environment, particularly with his stubborn bubble-screen conservatism earlier this season as opposed to stretching the field vertically. Lee subsequently tried to do too much, resulting in a costly lack of natural cohesion.
If Sark's words hold up, the up-tempo style that revolutionized Washington should elevate Agholor's future in ways that would have Lee galloping laps stark nude in Heritage Hall. Of course, none of the Huskies' receivers reached even 800 yards in 2013, and Clay Helton will assuredly stress sharing the football among all of his offensive weapons. Nevertheless, there appears to be plenty of offense to go around.
In any case, Agholor and Kessler have constructed a rapport destined for magical moments, which can soon trump the memories of Lee and Barkley if trophies become involved.
Believe it or not, some athletic programs prioritize winning divisions, conferences and national championships. Go figure.
Individual achievements aside, if the measuring stick of one's career is team accomplishment, then Lee is graduating unfulfilled. Due to the postseason ban implemented within the Reggie Bush sanctions, Lee can only crow a 10-2 campaign deprived of the chance to earn a Rose Bowl berth, followed by a regressive Sun Bowl defeat minus his influence (six catches for 41 yards) to counter the Las Vegas victory.
It isn't fair to Lee—it's unfair for all unjustly punished Trojans. Perhaps it is enough to inspire an encore, but if not, the ultimate prizes remain for Agholor and a USC squad that demonstrated how it's among the thick of Pac-12 parity.
The eventual fruition of Lee's and Agholor's respective collegiate careers may also rest on the resulting products they offer to the NFL. For Lee, that basically means getting drafted in first round.
His old teammate, Robert Woods, produced a modest rookie campaign for the Buffalo Bills with 40 receptions, 587 yards and three touchdowns, but slid from inaugural first-round consideration into Day Two. In fact, the last USC wideout to be selected high is Mike Williams with the 10th pick by the Detroit Lions in 2005, and he fled to Canada.
Lee appears to have weathered the storm of his up-and-down projections for now, pending the scouting combine and interviews this spring. CBS Sports' Dane Brugler has him slated No. 18 to the New York Jets, Walter Football's latest mock prefers him with the Pittsburgh Steelers three picks earlier and B/R tops that with the No. 13 St. Louis Rams.
He doesn't necessarily have to pass Clemson's Sammy Watkins or Texas A&M's Mike Evans. Lee just needs to be drafted on the same day.
Meanwhile, for junkies skipping ahead to 2015 predictions, Walter Football had this to say about Agholor and his Round 1-3 grade this past August:
With Marqise Lee drawing constant double teams, Agholor should break out as a sophomore. That was the case a year ago with defenses focused on Robert Woods.[Agholor] has some special teams ability as well."
Yeah, still too soon to tell.
Intangibles (and Verdict)
What's regarded as an on-field failure by some was spun into a positive by former interim head coach Ed Orgeron, who suggested to the College Football 24/7 podcast (via FanSided.com) that the 2013 season humbled Marqise Lee as "just another teammate." The praise and alleged adjustment can only add to Lee's likability.
Whether he's (legally) signing autographs or delivering shoes to under-privileged children, Lee has been a fan favorite from the beginning and has hardly stirred an ill word in his locker room, either. Agholor is present in giving back to the community along with many Trojans, but Lee just so happens to be the bigger household name at this point.
Lee is also a two-sport athlete, adding track and field to his repertoire. Such events are immortalized at USC, and everything he does encapsulates Trojan Pride.
Advantage (and 5-5 tie-breaking victory): Lee
Anything can happen. Nelson Agholor can break NCAA records with 2,500 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns, he might tear his ACL in USC's next scrimmage or he'll be surprisingly average on a team featuring a revived running game and defense. The potential is there, but until reality catches up to it, Lee has already supplanted himself on and off the gridiron as a legend in the hearts of Trojans supporters.
Now watch Darreus Rogers have a better career than both of them.