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On eve of NFL draft, USC's Marqise Lee is ready to emerge

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Via L.A. Times: USC's Marqise Lee hopes to stand out among crowd of receivers in NFL draft
USC's Marqise Lee isn't stressed about his place in NFL draft
Marqise Lee hopes to be NFL's next great receiver from USC

Marqise Lee is scheduled to be at New York's Radio City Music Hall on Thursday night.

The former USC star will take his place in a crowded green room backstage: He's one of seven receivers among a record 30 players who RSVP'd to attend the NFL draft.

Pre-draft anxiety apparently bothers Lee about as much as an overmatched cornerback.

"I don't really stress about it," he said.

Lee, the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner as college football's top receiver, began last season projected as a possible top-10 draft pick.

However, injuries limited his production during perhaps the most tumultuous season in Trojans history. And good-but-not-great performances at the NFL scouting combine — he clocked a time of 4.52 seconds in the 40-yard dash — and USC's pro day workout also might affect his stock.

Clemson's Sammy Watkins and Texas A&M's Mike Evans are expected to be chosen before Lee, who has been pegged by most draft prognosticators as a late first-round selection.

Louisiana State's Odell Beckham Jr., Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, Indiana's Cody Latimer and Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews also will attend the draft.

"In some years he would be the first- or second-ranked wide receiver," Gil Brandt, a former Dallas Cowboys executive and longtime draft analyst, said of Lee. "This is just an unbelievable year for wide receivers."

Lee's resume includes 248 career catches, 29 for touchdowns, and 3,655 yards receiving, a school record amassed in three seasons.

But at 6 feet and 192 pounds, he is neither as tall nor as fast as Watkins and others.

The NFL career arcs of several former USC receivers also might handicap Lee.

In the last 40 years, six USC receivers were drafted in the first round, four in the second.

Lynn Swann was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round in 1974. He went on to enjoy a Hall of Fame career that included four Super Bowl titles.

Nearly two decades passed before an NFL team chose another Trojans receiver in the first round.

The Chicago Bears' selection of Curtis Conway in 1993 started a trend. The Detroit Lions made Johnnie Morton a first-round pick in 1994, and the New York Jets took Keyshawn Johnson No. 1 overall in 1996.

All three enjoyed highly productive NFL careers that lasted more than a decade.

Trojans receivers have been largely hit and miss since.

R. Jay Soward, the Jacksonville Jaguars' first-round pick in 2000, was suspended indefinitely for substance abuse violations and never returned to the NFL after one troubled season. Mike Williams, chosen 10th overall in 2005, fell short of expectations.

Dwayne Jarrett struggled with the Carolina Panthers, but fellow second-round picks Keary Colbert and Steve Smith enjoyed modestly productive careers with several teams.

Robert Woods, a second-round pick by the Buffalo Bills in last year's draft, produced a solid rookie season.

"I know the history," Lee said, noting that each player's situation was different and that many schools have produced high draft picks who have faltered.

An NFL team scout said there was no particular stigma about drafting Trojans receivers.

"Sure there have been busts, but there have been busts from several schools at receiver," said the scout, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized by his team to speak publicly. "It's more up to the individual person.

"With guys like Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett, they were big, talented guys, but they lacked speed. In Mike Williams' case, he didn't have very good work habits. He would get lazy. … The guys who have made it, Robert Woods, Steve Smith, they've all been great workers, good route runners, they can separate. That's a big thing."

The scout said Lee could be successful in the NFL.

"If he gets in the right system, with a proven veteran receiver and a good program, good strength program, he can be a very good pro," he said.

Conway, Morton and Johnson monitored Lee since he arrived at USC in 2011 from Gardena Serra High.

Conway, like Lee, was far from a finished receiver when he was chosen with the seventh overall pick.

Lee's game film from 2012 — when he caught a school-record 118 passes — is probably enough to keep him in the first round, Conway said.

But he needs work.

"You have to be able to catch the ball and get uphill instead of trying to make guys miss," said Conway, an analyst for the Pac-12 Networks. "I had to learn the same thing.

"In the NFL, the pursuit is coming. You can make one move but not two."

Morton said Lee utilized superior athletic ability to excel at USC, but he must improve the technical aspect of his game.

"All the little nuances of being a receiver," Morton said, "every little technique about not giving away routes."

Lee's combine performance showed he was "not a blazing-fast guy like most people thought," said Johnson, an ESPN analyst.

But Lee can be a solid pro if he learns "how to get up the field with not a lot of dancing around," Johnson said. "He'll learn that when he gets hit in the mouth."

Lee is looking forward to attending the draft and hearing his name announced. He also will monitor how Trojans teammates fare.

Center Marcus Martin, safety Dion Bailey, tight end Xavier Grimble and defensive lineman George Uko also declared for the draft despite having a season of college eligibility remaining. Linebacker Morgan Breslin, running back Silas Redd and offensive linemen Kevin Graf and John Martinez are among other USC players hoping to be drafted or signed as free agents.

"I'm excited," Lee said. "I'm eager to see where they're going to end up."

Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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