Who is the best player in college football? When I posed that question to several players at Pac-12 Media Day last week, I expected to hear the names Jadeveon Clowney or Johnny Manziel. But the most common name mentioned was Marqise Lee.
Of course, I'm not surprised Pac-12 players cited the USC wide receiver after he snagged 118 receptions for 1,712 yards and 14 touchdowns a season ago. Lee's totals ranked first (receptions), second (yards) and third (touchdowns) in the nation, revealing his dominance as a playmaker on the perimeter. The astonishing numbers reflect the tremendous progress Lee has made in only two full seasons of major college football.
So, does Lee deserve to be in the conversation for the nation's best college player, like some of the Pac-12's best want you to believe? I dug into All-22 coaches' tape to find out, evaluating his strengths, weaknesses and pro potential:
Lee has the speed, quickness and body control to become an outstanding receiver at the next level. He has rare speed with the burst and acceleration to run past defenders on vertical routes, while also possessing the short-area quickness to separate on intermediate routes. His raw athleticism makes him nearly indefensible despite a lack of polish as a route runner.
He still takes a few too many steps to stop at the top of his routes, and he slightly tips off his intentions with choppy steps. But he is such an explosive athlete that he simply blows past defenders out of the break. At the next level, however, elite defenders will anticipate his breaks and aggressively jump his routes to neutralize his effectiveness. Of course, Lee's speed and athleticism will make that difficult, but route running is an aspect of his game that he must continue to refine going forward.
Lee displays strong hands and an attack mentality when the ball is in the air. He tracks the ball well in flight, while showing exceptional hand-eye coordination determining whether to "high point" or cradle passes down field. Lee's ability to "high point" passes, in particular, is an impressive trait he routinely displays on film. He out-jumps defenders on high balls, displaying a remarkable combination of athleticism, leaping ability and concentration that is surprising of a receiver of his stature.
Lee's impressive ball skills can be attributed to his background as a standout basketball player and track star in high school at Gardena (Calif.) Serra. He recorded the nation's third-best high school long jump (24-8) in 2011, while also helping the basketball team win a state title (2010) as a designated sixth man. Factor in the skills Lee acquired as a three-sport athlete, it's not surprising he excels at coming down with 50-50 balls in traffic.
Lee might be the most explosive open-field runner in college football. He is a blur with the ball in his hands, displaying the speed and burst to slither past defenders in space. He's a tough, physical runner with the strength to run through arm tackles in traffic. Those skills are showcased on kick returns (Lee led the Pac-12 with a 28.5 average in 2012). His running skills continue to stand out when he turns short passes into a big gains on catch-and-run plays.
In the NFL, Lee's combination of speed, burst and elusiveness will make him an ideal playmaker in a system that features an assortment quick screens, slants and crossing routes designed to get a receiver touches on the perimeter.
Offensive coaches love pass catchers with big-play ability, particularly when they are capable of producing explosive gains on vertical routes or catch-and-runs. USC coach Lane Kiffin brought up Terrell Owens' name when trying to find a comparison to Lee, who fits the mold of a home-run threat with the potential to put the ball in the paint from anywhere on the field. Last season, he produced 16 plays of 40-plus yards and averaged 40.8 yards on his 15 touchdowns (14 receiving and one on a kick return). That's the kind of production that excites NFL evaluators, which is why he ranks high on the list of underclassmen in college football.
NFL evaluators love to assess the performances of top prospects in big games because it provides a glimpse at their future potential as a pro. Lee has been an exceptional performer on the big stage with 12 100-yard games and eight contests with 10 or more receptions. Those numbers reflect his dominance against Pac-12 competition, but they also indicate his ability to take over games as a No. 1 receiver on the outside.
As I studied Lee's game tape from the the last two seasons, I was most impressed by how he developed into a lead receiver after thriving as a complementary playmaker as a freshman. Lee put up big numbers against a variety of double-team tactics designed to neutralize his effectiveness down the field. It was impressive to see how he continued to play hard when the ball didn't head in his direction, displaying a maturity that is uncommon among the diva-like receivers that permeate the collegiate landscape.
It is hard to find major flaws in Lee's game despite his inexperience at the position. He is an accomplished playmaker with the kind of speed, quickness and athleticism that scares defensive coordinators. He is an ultra-competitive alpha dog that plays at his best when his team needs it most. While he still must make strides as a route runner to become an elite receiver at the next level, it is hard to find a more dangerous receiver in the college game today. That's saying a lot with the likes of Amari Cooper (Alabama) and Sammy Watkins (Clemson) also dominating the college landscape.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.