Lane Kiffin made headlines Thursday when he announced that Heisman-hopeful Marqise Lee has been practicing with the defense this week and could see snaps on that side of the ball against Arizona State on Saturday.
Lee was highly recruited as a defensive back out of high school, finishing with 45 tackles and three interceptions in his senior season at Serra. His natural athletic ability served him well on both sides of the ball, but many were surprised when he emerged as a once-in-a-lifetime type wide receiver at USC because the general wisdom had always been that he was more likely to make his name in the secondary at the NCAA level.
More than 2400 yards receiving and 23 touchdowns later, Lee has solidified himself as a Heisman candidate at wide out, but this experiment on defense might some huge implications on both offense and defense, as well as his Heisman hopes.
On the one hand, the six-foot-one-inch Lee, with the natural instinct of a ball-hawking corner back or safety coupled with the ball skills of the most dynamic receiver in college football, could be a nightmare for opposing offenses and provide some much needed help to the struggling USC secondary.
With Isiah Wiley suspended, Torin Harris lacking in ball skills and instinct, and the Josh Shaw corner back experiment seemingly falling short of hopes, Lee could conceivably help plug a hole on the side of the field opposite Nickell Robey, which has been exploited by USC opponents all season. Even if Lee only makes appearances in the red zone, his height and skill would presumably negate any jump balls that the opposing team could attempt.
Even further, should Lee manage to reel in an interception, it’s unlikely that anyone on the opposing offense could stop him making a return in the open field. It would be like returning a kick off with half of the coverage team replaced by offensive linemen.
Given that scenario, playing on both sides of the ball could actually bolster Lee’s claim to the Heisman Trophy. When was the last time the best receiver in college football also came in and helped his team on defense?
On the other hand, Lee has spent two years working almost exclusively with the USC offense. He doesn’t know Monte Kiffin’s system, so they’d either have to have him pick up a very simplified defensive package in the course of a week, or go man-to-man and live with the adjustments in that direction.
It also will not work to have Lee play every snap on defense and offense. Something has to give, so his impact on defense would be limited by just how much time he sees on that end of the field. By the same token, every defensive snap that he plays would necessitate him sitting out a certain number on offense.
Is it worth shoring up your defense, in whatever small amount, if it is at the cost of losing your most explosive offensive player for a few critical snaps each game?
On top of that, it is unlikely, given the workload that Lee has carried this season, that he would be able to continue returning kicks. While USC has several, very able kick returners, none has been has effective as Lee. This season he has returned one kick for a touchdown and ranks eighth nationally in total return yardage.
Against Arizona, Lee needed an IV at the half and he was clearly gassed on the sideline against Oregon. Playing on both sides of the ball could wear him out to the point where he’s less effective at both. Of even greater concern, if he were to get injured while playing defense it would be a huge blow to the entire team, one that may have been prevented.
The impact of Marqise Lee at DB would be felt throughout the entire USC team and could change the national race for the Heisman Trophy. Whether or not Kiffin ultimately decides to throw him in the mix on game day, it will be a very interesting story line to follow for the rest of the season.