FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Before the season, South Florida was exactly where USC wide receiver Marqise Lee wanted to be. The talented sophomore was excited about soaking up the humidity outside, spending time with a Heisman Trophy winner and addressing the media in the lead-up to the BCS National Championship Game.
The journey didn’t quite work out the way Lee hoped, but he wound up doing all of those things on Sunday, traveling to the Miami area with a group of college football award winners to be honored by the Orange Bowl. Though he turned in a record-setting season that earned him the Biletnikoff Award, the individual accolade was a bit bittersweet in a year where his USC team faltered down the stretch, and it is rival Notre Dame that has a chance to win the national title.
“It’s been tough in the sense that we went from No. 1 to nothing and they went from nothing to No. 1. When you think about, there were a lot of games we should have won,” Lee said. “It’s tough. They did what they were supposed to do and are undefeated. Can’t argue with that. No matter how many people think they shouldn’t be here, they should be here.”
The Trojans ended 2012 with a disappointing loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. The offense was held to a season-low 205 yards, and the game turned out to be a fitting end to a year where not much went right after starting out as the preseason No. 1 team with Pac-12 and BCS hopes.
[Related: Sun Bowl loss a fitting end for USC]
“Most of us – Robert [Woods], T.J. [McDonald], Hayes [Pullard] – were into [the bowl game], including myself. I don’t know what teammates weren’t, but you should have been into it. You haven’t been to a bowl game in two years,” said Lee. “I was happy to play in [the Sun Bowl]. Some players were probably upset playing there but that’s where we were at. We went out there and played and the outcome wasn’t what we wanted.
“It’s not the season you want to have overall. I was upset. We know we were better than that but things happen for a reason and it’s only going to be for the best. Now we know what we are going to need to improve on for next year. We have most everybody coming back; we’re only losing five or six at the most. Now it’s time to prepare for next year, take this summer and do what you’re supposed to do. Now we start all over and go from the bottom to the top,” Lee said.
While at the event Sunday, Lee hung out with several other notable college football players such as Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. The Trojans’ leading receiver and all-purpose threat turned in a terrific season (1,721 yards, 14 touchdowns) and finished fourth in the voting, falling just short of a trip to New York City but providing a bit of fuel during the offseason, even if he won’t quite come out and say it.
“I’m not really focused on that. My main focus is on getting better,” said Lee. “We disappointed a lot of people, including ourselves and the coaches. Our main focus is improving and getting better next year.”
Having faced Notre Dame earlier this season, Lee was asked by the media who he thought would win Monday night’s BCS title matchup. He hesitated only slightly when the Trojan picked the Irish to win it all. With an intimate knowledge of the team’s defense, Lee did provide some insight as to the reason Notre Dame made it to South Florida instead of USC.
“Our main focus was getting by Manti [Teo]. He runs from sideline to sideline great. We wanted to get away from him, get my hands on the ball before he had the chance to get by us. In that defense, there’s great safeties, the corners played great and one actually got a pick (vs. USC). They’ll be OK if they handle what they were supposed to and execute the things that they need to execute.”
After the game, Lee will head back to Los Angeles and begin school next week. He plans to use the offseason to get even better, faster and stronger as he heads into his junior year. Having already made it to the NCAA championship meet in the triple jump, Lee again will heavily incorporate track and field training into his training regimen in addition to spring football. The soft-spoken Trojan also indicated that he may run the 400 meters in addition to his normal slate of sprints and jumps.
Additional thoughts from Lee
On USC receivers coach Tee Martin:
“Tee pushes us. When Coach Gilmore was there, he pushed us, but Coach Tee really pushes us. Even after you put in that extra time, he still wants you to put in more extra time. He actually texted me to go start working out.”
On quarterback Matt Barkley:
“I feel real bad. When a player comes back, you never want them to get injured. In Matt’s case, he’s a great dude and one of the best leaders in the world. He does a lot for our community. For him to be hurt and having to sit out his last games was something I didn’t want. Been then again, if he had been able to play, I wouldn’t have wanted him to because we don’t know how bad his injury was and I don’t want to mess it up even more for him.
“He did what I thought he was going to do, stay on us. He said, ‘Always keep your head up.’ That’s one thing he pushed on me, after every game we lost I put my head down and thought about how I could do better. With Matt being on my side, he helped me keep my head up and reminded me there are more games to come. There’s time for improvement, especially for me next year. He wasn’t really focused on himself. He was really trying to help us out.”
On the heat on coach Lane Kiffin:
“From the outside it’s probably tough, but from him knowing his players, we feel for him. We’re the reason why he has the heat. Us, as players, control the coaches’ jobs. Our mindset now is just on improving. We know he’ll at least be here for next year so our mindset is improving to get a better record – do what we need to do so they can extend his contract.
“He keeps a positive mindset. Inside, he lets us know the things we need to improve on and things he, as a coach, needs to improve on.
“(In the media) It’s something every week, something here or something there, somebody worried about this, something about the ball being deflated. It’s just nonsense that we as players don’t really worry about. We just play ball and go to class.”
On Kiffin’s message after the Sun Bowl:
“He said to keep our heads up. Yes, we had a tough year this year. But for those that are coming back it’s time for improvement and for those leaving this should motivate you to keep doing what you’re supposed to be doing. The thing I got out of it is, just get ready for next year. I don’t feel like spring is going to be tougher. We just have to do what we need to do and maintain.”
On the lack of expectations heading into 2013:
“It’s a little more relaxed. Last year was kind of tough. Everybody talked about this, talked about that. We tried to focus but we hear it all so it’s hard to focus. Now nobody’s going to be talking about us and we can focus.”
On what he’ll do next season:
“My main focus is to do better than I did last year, to tell you the truth. That is my goal and I really plan on fulfilling it. Nothing less than that. The offseason is going to be great. I have motivation. The Heisman, I want to actually make it there and in order to do that I have to have better numbers and we have to win. I have to put our team in a perfect position to win. I know everybody else is going to come around, our defense will be ready and our linebackers are super ready. We’re all focused, to tell you the truth. This season wasn’t what we wanted it to be, so, therefore, we’re going to change.”
On being a mentor to younger players:
“I’m going to make sure I work with Nelson [Agholor] in the offseason, I told him that right after the bowl game. Him, George [Farmer] and everybody coming in, I’m going to make sure we get a good workout this offseason. I want us to continue doing what we’re doing. I want us to be the best receiving corps.”