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Finally, George Farmer shows what he can do

USC receiver Farmer had a breakthrough performance against Notre Dame

George Farmer lined up wide to the right and sensed the moment.

The USC receiver had persevered through a position change, a comeback from major knee surgery and years of constant comparisons to All-Americans Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, his former high school and Trojans teammates.

So about midway through the first quarter of last month's regular-season finale against Notre Dame at the Coliseum, Farmer tried to contain his excitement.

He heard only the first two words of the play call. That was enough. He looked into the face of a Fighting Irish defensive back who lined up across the line of scrimmage. He noticed the defender nervously biting his mouthpiece, as if anticipating what Farmer was about to do.

"This is my time," Farmer said to himself. "I have to make it happen."

The ball was snapped and Farmer blew past the cornerback to haul in a 48-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Cody Kessler.

It marked the first time Farmer was allowed to truly showcase the deep-ball capability that made him such a coveted prospect coming out of Gardena Serra High.

Serra Coach Scott Altenberg watched the play unfold and said he had one thought: "Finally."

That was also the collective reaction of USC fans, who waited all season for coaches to turn the fourth-year junior loose.

"We're still finding our way with George, of creating those one-on-one matchups and allowing him to go make his plays," USC Coach Steve Sarkisian said.

Farmer also caught another of Kessler's six touchdown passes in the 49-14 rout of the Fighting Irish, a victory that sent the Trojans into the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl against Nebraska on a high note.

No Trojans player is feeling better than Farmer, who has 24 receptions, four for touchdowns.

"God works in mysterious ways," he said Thursday. "I wouldn't have changed anything in the past three years. It feels great now."

That was not always the case.

While Woods and Lee were establishing USC records, the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Farmer kept running into setbacks.

"To see those guys do the things that we all used to do in high school together, it was very, very frustrating," Farmer said.

Woods and Lee offered encouragement . So did Farmer's parents. His father, George Farmer III, was a receiver for the Los Angeles Rams and Miami Dolphins. His mother, Veronica Green, is a former sprinter.

"The thing I always told George was to stay positive and to keep working," his father said.

When Farmer arrived at USC in the fall of 2011, he hoped to make an impact similar to Woods, a 2010 Freshman All-American. But while Lee was fast-tracked to playing time, then-coach Lane Kiffin informed Farmer he would redshirt.

After impressing coaches as a member of the scout team, Farmer debuted as a tailback in the sixth game of the season against California.

He finished the season with five carries for 15 yards — and requested a return to receiver.

"I don't look at it as a bad thing," he said of his time as a running back. "It helped me a lot to become the player I am today."

In 2012, Woods and Lee combined to catch 194 passes, 25 for touchdowns. Farmer struggled to overcome hamstring issues and caught one pass for seven yards.

"Definitely frustrating," he said, "But I couldn't be mad behind two of my great friends. … I just tried to dig deep and keep moving forward."

In the spring of 2013, with Woods gone to the NFL, Farmer appeared on track to become the No. 2 receiver behind Lee. But during a practice, on a play absent of contact, he suffered torn ligaments in his left knee.

"I don't want to say it was a state of depression, but I was constantly thinking, 'Where am I going to end up? What do I do now?' " he said. "There were all these questions running through my head."

Farmer underwent surgery and began the long road to recovery with an eye on the 2014 season.

He tested the knee in spring workouts and, during training camp, appeared back to full strength and in line to become the No. 2 receiver behind junior Nelson Agholor. Farmer caught three passes in the opener against Fresno State and four in the next game against Stanford. He scored his first touchdown against Boston College.

A hamstring injury slowed Farmer through the middle of the season, but he re-emerged with a diving touchdown catch against Cal on Nov. 13.

His performance against Notre Dame could portend more deep routes.

"Every time we get someone matched up man-to-man with him and he's going vertical, it's pretty cool," Kessler said.

Farmer, 21, is eligible to make himself available for the 2015 NFL draft, but he said he was leaning toward returning to USC for his final season of eligibility.

"I definitely think I can build off how I ended the year," he said.

So does Sarkisian.

"The last third of the season," he said, "opened his eyes to what he's capable of next fall."

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein

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