LOS ANGELES (AP) Southern California’s downtown campus is just 11 miles north of Serra High School, a private Catholic institution and an oasis from nearby urban decay in its tidy Gardena neighborhood.
Although Robert Woods and Marqise Lee made the short trip from Serra to USC one year apart, the Trojans’ dynamic receiving duo is blazing quite a path through the Pac-12′s secondaries together.
Woods is on pace for the best season by a receiver in school history with an NCAA-leading 55 catches through five games of his sophomore year, while coach Lane Kiffin thinks Lee is bigger, stronger, just as fast — and ahead of Woods’ growth as a freshman.
“We’ve got two guys that have the potential to be two of the best — if not the best — receivers this school has ever seen,” Kiffin said. “They’ve got a long way to go, but it’s pretty special to have that chance.”
They’re both speedy, athletic and tenacious — a trait they credit partly to each other. They both played defensive back at Serra, guarding each other during the Cavaliers’ practices, before teaming up on Friday nights.
“We’ve been teammates for a long time,” Woods said. “We push each other to get better every day of our lives.”
They’re likely to be joined by a third Serra graduate, freshman George Farmer, when the Trojans (4-1, 2-1 Pac-12) face California in San Francisco on Thursday. Farmer, recruited as an elite receiver, is expected to debut at tailback against the Golden Bears after a midseason position switch — a nod to the dominance of Woods and Lee, the only true freshmen ever to start at receiver for USC.
Kiffin hasn’t been shy about comparing his Serra products, either. While he profusely praises Woods, the top target of his offensive play-calling, he clearly has enormous expectations for Lee, lauding his constant improvement ever since he emerged as the surprise of training camp.
And though they’ve known each other since adolescence, they didn’t arrive at USC as a package deal.
Woods grew up idolizing USC receiver Steve Smith and picturing himself scoring touchdowns in the Coliseum. He chose the Trojans months before leading a state title run in 2009 at Serra — not to be confused with the identically named Bay Area school that produced Barry Bonds, Tom Brady, Lynn Swann and Jim Fregosi.
Lee is a three-sport athlete who never had a “dream college,” he says. He came awfully close to choosing Oregon before the Trojans agreed he had a future at receiver, not cornerback.
“Robert never told me to come here,” Lee said. “People thought he did, but not at all. He just told me to pick the best choice for me.”
Woods has been quarterback Matt Barkley’s favorite target from their first few weeks together, and he has 747 yards receiving and six touchdowns in five spectacular games this fall. After setting the school’s single-game record with 17 catches in the season opener, Woods fell just shy of the USC single-game record for yards receiving with 255 against Arizona.
Lee has 21 catches for 323 yards and three touchdowns, relishing his role as the No. 2 option in Kiffin’s aggressive passing attack.
“Our initial goal is for Robert to get all the attention, and that frees us up,” Lee said. “Then, when we start to get some attention, that frees Robert back up. So far, it’s working out that way. Robert is extremely amazing. He’s a one-of-a-kind athlete. I’ve got a lot to learn before I get on his level.”
Woods is a superb athlete, but he’s also a technician, putting in hours of extra study on defenses and routes, which he works out with geometric precision.
Lee is an athlete: He’s just under 6 feet tall, yet he can dunk on an 11-foot rim. He’s thinking about going out for the injury-depleted USC basketball team several weeks from now, but the Trojans already have put his vertical leap to use on several tough catches.
“Robert can go up when he has to, but Marqise can elevate,” Barkley said. “It’s pretty cool to watch it.”
Lee believes his multiple interests, which included track, actually limited his football development in high school, preventing him from learning a few fine points. He’s picking up every detail this year, and he’s finding new uses for the athleticism he developed in basketball.
“Somebody tries to dunk on you, you have to time your jump to block him,” Lee said. “That’s just like catching a pass.”
Both receivers give credit for their achievements to Barkley, who has passed for 1,587 yards with 14 touchdowns and just four interceptions. The junior quarterback seems likely to head to the NFL next season, but the bowl-banned Trojans have seven games left to show off Barkley’s connection with his Serra receivers.
“It’s pretty amazing to have all that talent coming out of one school,” said Barkley, who’s from Orange County. “It’s even more amazing that they keep getting better up here at USC. The future is bright here.”