Lee ahead of Woods' curve

Comparing the two is inevitable.

Heck, Lane Kiffin does it without any prompting. The Trojans' second-year coach freely compares his freshman phenom Marqise Lee to his sophomore sensation Robert Woods, both because the two receivers went to high school together at local Gardena Serra and because they simply resemble each other in their early progress in the USC program.

And, through one quarter of the Trojans' 2011 season, Kiffin believes Lee has advanced further than Woods had through one quarter of the Trojans' 2010 season.

"I would say at this point, after three games, he's ahead of where Robert was right now," the head coach said Wednesday. "This kid's really special.

"He's every bit as fast as Robert but he's bigger and stronger."

Lee's actually not bigger. He said in fall camp he was only a tad taller than 5-11, which only adds to the intrigue surrounding what he's been able to do as a true freshman. Woods is a solid 6-1. But, yes, Lee's probably faster and appears significantly stronger than Woods was a year ago.

And their numbers aren't quite the same, but they're close. Woods had 11 catches for 143 yards and no touchdowns through three games in his freshman season; Lee has nine catches for 129 yards and one touchdown.

But those aren't so important. What Kiffin and the other coaches care about is steady improvement, and Lee has shown that -- save for one small week-long hiccup, of course, during the Utah game week. Apart from that, he's been steadily trending upward.

"He's gotten better every week," Kiffin said. "Last week in the game he looked the best that he's looked as far as being comfortable and being lined up. Game 2 he was kind of all over the place. He had some issues with some formations and [Woods] was having to help him line up.

"But he really took to the challenge of improving himself and really put together a complete game in Week 3."

That complete game included his first collegiate touchdown catch, a beauty of a 43-yarder from Matt Barkley that really sealed the outcome of the USC-Syracuse contest. He only had one other reception, but his blocking was significantly improved and he was much more a steady presence as opposed to the dreaded up-and-down freshman he'd been in weeks prior.

"We didn't throw to him that much (last week), but every time we did, he came up big for us," Kiffin said. "We 've gotta find a way to get him the ball more."

That task is only becoming easier, as teams key in on Woods more and more and the Trojans' other receiving options get more opportunities to catch the ball. Arizona State, USC's opponent in two days' time, has talent in its secondary but has had its defense decimated by injuries. The Sun Devils still have elite players back there, but they're spread more thin than they'd like.

In other words, Woods will get their best defenders. USC's other offensive options might have inexperienced players defending them. And in other other words, Saturday's game makes a ton of sense as a breakout game for the 19-year-old Lee.

"Throughout the couple of games, Robert has been doing an excellent job so everybody's been focused on him," Lee said. "So last game I showed a little bit of effort and did a little bit of something to get the eyes off him.

"But this game I'm looking forward to actually getting a little bit more catches, a little bit more opportunities to get all the eyes off him and make sure they see the whole team, not just him."

Lee's goal, he says point-blank, is to be a "little bit better" than where Woods was at any given time in his freshman season. He continues to measure himself to the standard Woods set a year ago, and he continues to come out fairly favorably. That's an ongoing test, though.

And what about the test that Sun Devils linebacker Vontaze Burfict -- the Southern California native whose tendency to terrorize receivers who dare to venture across the middle is well-publicized -- will surely provide Saturday?

Lee, never afraid to get hit, doesn't mind at all.

"If he gets a shot on me, he gets a shot on me," Lee said Wednesday. "I'll make sure I catch the ball. I'm not gonna just get hit for nothing."