Serra HS trio thinking big at USC

Marqise Lee (9) and Robert Woods are quickly becoming a dynamic receiver tandem for the USC Trojans. Kelvin Kuo/US Presswire

LOS ANGELES -- In the past 65 years, USC has had two true freshman receivers start a season opener.
Robert Woods did it last year against Hawaii, and Marqise Lee did it last month versus Minnesota.

Steve Smith, Dwayne Jarrett, Mike Williams, Keyshawn Johnson, Johnnie Morton and Lynn Swann are all up and down the USC record books and each won All-America accolades, but none started his first college game.

It's a cozy little twosome Woods and Lee have formed, but that distinction only hints at how entwined USC's most exciting playmakers are. They both came out of Scott Altenberg's program at Serra High in Gardena, where they competed like crazy against each other in practice -- each doubled as a defensive back for a while -- but then tortured Serra's opponents on game days.

And the most physically gifted player Serra bestowed on USC's offense, George Farmer, hasn't even touched the field yet. It looks as if he'll be part of the game plan Thursday night against Cal at AT&T Park in San Francisco. The Trojans are in the process of turning Farmer (a 6-foot-1, 220-pound ex-track star) into a running back, and he might also be involved in special teams. The plan to redshirt him is out the window as USC coaches scramble to inject some big-play capability into a sleepy running game.

Talk about local farming. USC coaches had to drive all of 11 miles south of campus to recruit three players who could wind up with a massive effect on this program by the time their college careers wrap up.

"It really just kind of came together," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "It wasn't something right when we got here two years ago, when we saw these three and said, 'Wow, get them all together.' We just kind of went through the evaluation period on them."

A second-grader could have evaluated Farmer enough to offer him a scholarship. He finished second in the 100 meters at the 2010 California state track meet and had more than 1,500 receiving yards in his senior season. Woods can't match Farmer's measurables, but he is a nearly flawless technician and shoved his way to the top of the depth chart as soon as he arrived at USC with his relentless study habits.

Lee was a trickier find. He didn't play receiver until his senior year, and USC, sated by what it had already pulled out of Serra, didn't start recruiting him much until a few other schools had already gotten deep into the process. When USC coaches got around to evaluating his film, they saw a graceful speedster with the leaping ability of an NBA shooting guard -- he could dunk on an 11-foot basket -- and a nose for hard contact.

When they were in high school, nobody really knew how good they were going to be. But their coach, Altenberg, started to glimpse it by Woods' senior season. Lee, who was a safety then, had to cover both Woods and Farmer in practice. The competition was hot, but when they weren't fighting for the ball, they were fighting for each other, Altenberg said.

"The one thing that was most amazing about them was their complete, unbelievable competitiveness, but also their complete unselfishness at the same time," Altenberg said. You never find that. At least, I never have."

A lot of people were surprised when Lee ended up following Woods and Farmer to USC.

"Me and George always talked about SC," Woods said. "Come to find out, Marqise is an SC guy, too."

At 19, Woods is the wise veteran, shepherding his younger teammates through the rigors of big-time college football. When he's not doing that, he's staging a stealth Heisman campaign, tied for the national lead in receptions per game (11) and second in receiving yards per game (149.4). Lee is USC's No. 2 receiver, averaging nearly 65 yards per game and having scored three touchdowns.

"I show them the way and tell them to stay in the playbook, stay in the weight room, stay in the training room," Woods said. "They've been following the right steps so far, and they're doing well. I'm proud of them."

Somebody asked Lee this week whether it was a dream scenario, playing so close to home and in tandem with his high school teammate.

"A dream? Not necessarily a dream. It's just a review," Lee said. "I'm happy I had the chance to play with him in high school. To come back and play with him now is a reality. I've just got to get it done just like he got it done."

Woods and Lee are both excited to see how things go for Farmer at his new position. You also get the impression they have a better idea than just about anyone else around this program. They're just waiting for everyone else to catch on.

"His game is rare. He's such a big guy with a lot of speed," Woods said. "There are not a lot of players like that."

Said Lee: "He's an amazing kid."

For USC, Serra High is the school that just keeps on giving.

Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com.