Did USC Trojans Target Biletnikoff Winner Marqise Lee Too Much?

By Justine Hendricks
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

If the goal is to win football games (the goal is always to win football games), the most logical plan is to get the ball in the hands of your best playmaker. For the USC Trojans, that’s Marqise Lee, who won the Biletnikoff Award as the best wide receiver in college football this season. But his quarterback, Matt Barkley, thinks the team focused on Lee too much in 2012.

It seemed pretty apparent to many USC Trojans fans and neutral spectators that Barkley was throwing to Lee a lot, often at the expense of other players like junior Robert Woods, who was the team’s best receiver and a Biletnikoff finalist last season.

If it was evident to fans, it was just as obvious to opposing teams that knew Barkley tended to lock in on Lee and set up their defenses accordingly. Some have argued that USC’s struggles this season might’ve been alleviated at least somewhat if the Trojans mixed up the playcalling a little and if Barkley stopped staring Lee down long enough to notice that Woods and Nelson Agholor were wide open.

They’re valid points and at least one Trojan agrees.

On The Dan Patrick Show earlier this week, Barkley admitted:

“I think at times, though, I think we focused too much on [Lee] as a team and we took away from other great playmakers like Robert and our tight ends who are phenomenal players, to where defenses saw that and just kind of overcrowded Marqise. But he still managed to make plays, but I think we could have done a better job of utilizing other players.”

USC was expected to have the best offense in the nation this season with players like Barkley, Lee, Woods and running backs Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd. In reality, the offense was limited to Barkley, Lee and usually Redd (until he got hurt and McNeal took over).

The old adage is “Hindsight is 20/20,” but while Barkley might have realized the limitations on focusing on one guy–even a guy as ridiculously talented and explosive as Lee–his head coach/offensive coordinator won’t admit that was one of the Trojans’ problems.

When asked about Barkley’s remarks after practice earlier this week, Lane Kiffin disagreed that the team over-emphasized Lee’s role in the offense.

“No I don’t think that’s true,” Kiffin told reporters. “Basically, Marqise Lee had one more catch than Robert Woods did the year before, so when you have players like that you want to make sure they’re touching the ball.”

Kiffin isn’t wrong. Of course he wants his best players at the center of the action and Lee dominated this year’s offense like Woods did in 2011. Last season, Woods set a Pac-12 record with 111 catches while Lee had 73. This year, Lee broke Woods’ record with 112 catches in the regular season while Woods had exactly 73 receptions.

Numbers don’t lie, but they also reveal that outside of Woods, Lee and those “phenomenal” tight ends (who had nearly identical combined catches in the last two seasons), USC had more diversity in its passing game last year.

Seven players had double-digit receptions in 2011, compared with five in 2012. Fullback Rhett Ellison was the team’s fourth-leading receiver in 2011 with 22 catches. His successor, Soma Vainuku, had just eight (plus some key drops on 4th-and-short he’d probably like to forget). Agholor played well with 19 catches, but he couldn’t singlehandedly match the production of Brandon Carswell and Brice Butler, who combined for 33 catches in 2011.

USC’s top receivers and tight ends had virtually the same numbers as last season, just distributed differently, but a season ago Lee was just beginning to emerge.

Knowing the strengths and talents of both Woods and Lee, the targets should’ve been more even this year–especially since Barkley had fewer overall options.

Woods’ drop in productivity could give him more incentive to return for his senior season than if he’d repeated as one of the nation’s best receivers, but if he’s frustrated with the play-calling, that could sway him towards the NFL.

Without him, it’ll be even tougher for Lee to get open and like it or not, Kiffin will need to become even more creative at getting the ball to other playmakers.



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