Wednesday, 28 August 2013

40 Players in 40 Days: Number 1 Marqise Lee

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
What a wonderful day this is. Our countdown of the top 40 players in the Pac-12 has finally reached number one and that means that college football starts...wait for it...TOMORROW. It seems to be a nice little coincidence also, that the final player to be revealed on this list will be in action tomorrow night when USC travels across the Pacific Ocean to face Hawai'i. Last year, this player was deservingly bestowed with an award naming him the best in the nation at his position and finished fourth in voting for the Heisman Trophy. Truth be told, he might be the best to play his position in seven years. The very best player in the Pac-12 is USC junior wide receiver Marqise Lee. The completed top 40 list looks like this:

40. WR Chris Harper, Cal
39. OLB/S Dion Bailey, USC
38. S Alden Darby, Arizona State
37. OT Tyler Johnstone, Oregon
36. DE Chidera Uzo-Diribe, Colorado
35. S Deon Bucannon, Washington State
34. LB Shaq Thompson, Washington
33. DE Taylor Hart, Oregon
32. DT DeAndre Coleman, Cal
31. CB Terrance Mitchell, Oregon
30. C Hroniss Grassu, Oregon
29. DL Henry Anderson, Stanford
28. QB Kevin Hogan, Stanford
27. LB Carl Bradford, Arizona State
26. RB Storm Woods, Oregon State
25. QB Taylor Kelly, Arizona State
24. DL Cassius Marsh, UCLA
23. S Ed Reynolds, Stanford
22. OT Jeremiah Poutasi, Utah
21. TE Colt Lyerla, Oregon
20. RB Bishop Sankey, Washington
19. DT Leonard Williams, USC 
18. WR Brandin Cooks, Oregon State 
17. OL Xavier Su'a-Filo, UCLA
16. OLB/DL Trent Murphy, Stanford
15. OL David Yankey, Stanford
14. TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington
13. LB Shayne Skov, Stanford
12. DE Scott Crichton, Oregon State
11. RB Marion Grice, Arizona State
10. LB Eric Kendricks, UCLA
9. DE/OLB Morgan Breslin, USC
8. CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon
7. RB/WR De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon
6. QB Brett Hundley, UCLA
5. RB Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona
4. OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA
3. DL Will Sutton, Arizona State
2. QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Lee was certainly an elite recruit. He wasn't labelled as a five-star kid with every single school after him but he was a unanimous four star prospect who had no problem gaining scholarship offers. Lee's problem while he was finishing high school was that when recruiters from schools looked at him, they saw a safety. That is every school except one, Oregon. the Ducks looked at Lee as a wide receiver the entire time and their willingness to put Lee at his favorite position made them the front runner to land the coveted athlete. Lee reportedly almost pulled the trigger on an Oregon commitment a few times but decided to wait it out. With about a week to go before signing day, Lee's beloved childhood team USC changed its tune and promised Lee he would play wide receiver and not get stuck on defense. That was all Lee needed to hear as he committed to the Trojans and signed on the dotted line.

Few people, probably not even the USC coaches, were ready for what Lee did next. Lee needed some time to get going as he had just 13 receptions for 179 yards and two touchdowns through his first four career games. A 144 yard breakout performance against Arizona announced to the conference that he was a player to be reckoned with but, Lee had a relative no-show against Notre Dame sandwiched in between solid efforts versus Cal and Stanford as his freshman season rolled on. Lee was playing pretty well compared to the standards of most freshman wideouts as he had accumulated 534 yards and five touchdowns through eight career games. Those numbers were fine since sophomore Robert Woods was the returning All-American and the one destined for stardom on Sundays. Lee was developing, a mere complimentary piece in USC's offense and the guy who was supposed to be a safety. 

Then in an instant, Marqise Lee became a superstar. Lee caught nine pass for 124 yards and two touchdowns against Colorado, nine catches for 74 yards and a score against Washington, eight catches for 187 and a score against Oregon and 13 receptions for 224 yards and two TDs against UCLA to wrap up the Trojans final four games. Lee finished with 73 receptions for 1143 yards and 11 touchdowns as a true freshman and was named Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year and a 2nd team All-Pac-12 selection. Woods was named a 1st team pick but it seemed at the end of the year that the younger Lee had caught up to him and it would be Lee who would be the centerpiece of the offense in 2012.

That immediately came to fruition last year as Lee lead the nation with 118 receptions for 1721 yards (second in CFB), and 14 touchdowns (third). He was named a consensus 1st-team All-American, the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, and won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best wide receiver. Lee was held under 100 yards in just five of USC's 13 games and amazingly, managed to reach the endzone in all but four games. At one point last year, Lee had at least 94 yards and a score in eight out of nine games, highlighted by a school record 345 yards against Arizona. Oh and by the way, he lead the Pac-12 in kickoff return yards (he's score twice on returns in his career) and averaged better than eight yards per carry in the run game.

Similar to my comments about Marcus Mariota from yesterday, I simply can't find a single hole in Lee's game. Watch at 0:21 and see how Lee plays like a running back. Contrary to popular belief, Lee isn't only about blazing speed and he does more than just catch deep balls. Lane Kiffin loves to use trick formations with Lee lined up as a running back or H-back. Lee catches a quick designed pass on this player and the defense reads it but look at Lee make a slight hesitation to break down the defender in space and then ran right past him to the left. That is the type of athleticism and field presence that few players possess. Of course, Lee is more than just a short game weapon, he truly is a the best deep threat in college football. On the play at 2:32 he scores his career-best 87 yard touchdown but the math on this play is incredible. Lee runs from the USC 13 yard line where the ball is snapped to Utah's 31 where he catches the ball in six seconds. That means he covered 66 yards in six seconds which equates to a 4.44 40 yard dash with pads on. You can also appreciate his strength as he plucks the ball out of the air and shakes the defender trying to make a play on the ball and then makes a beautiful jump cut/stop move to shake the last defender to reach the endzone. Seriously, is there another player in college football who can do that?

The Oregon portion of that film above is even more incredible considering that he was matched up with the best corner in college football Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Ekpre-Olomu couldn't cover Lee to save his life. I love Ekpre-Olomu but look at how Lee just abuses him at 5:14 and burns him for a ho-hum 85 yard touchdown. You can watch the rest of the clip just for the sake of marveling at Lee but I think you get the idea, this young man is absurd and there is no one else like him in college football and perhaps even in the pros.

As an Oregon fan it's been tough to watch Lee sometimes knowing he almost ended up in Eugene. The only thing the Ducks have been missing since 2010 is a dynamic number one receiver. With a playmaker like Lee in the offense, Oregon probably would have beaten Stanford last year and likely gone on to win the national title. In 2011, Oregon certainly would have beaten USC and who knows, maybe that would have been enough to get a rematch with LSU and win that national championship as well. The Ducks would certainly be the number one team and the overwhelming favorite to win a championship this year as well. Even though the Trojans lost almost as many games last year (six) as the Ducks have dropped in the last four (seven) I doubt Lee would go back and change his decision. He has been able to live at home and bring his family and friends to every game and at USC he has starred as the best in the country. We can all play the "what if" game as much as we want but we can't change the fact that Marqise Lee chose to attend USC or the fact that Lee is simply the best.

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