Rain or shine, slick field or dry land, Notre Dame’s defensive secondary has its hands full this weekend when the dynamic duo of junior Marqise Lee and sophomore Nelson Agholor lead the USC offense Saturday night in Notre Dame Stadium.
“In Agholor and Lee on the perimeter, (USC) has two of the most exciting wide receivers in the country,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly.
Lee, who suffered a knee injury against Arizona State on Sept. 28, prompting him to miss USC’s Oct. 10 game against Arizona, is expected to play this weekend. According to Lee, he’ll be 100 percent by Saturday night’s kickoff.
Agholor, who was heavily recruited by the Irish, has quickly developed into a complementary threat to Lee with a 19.6-yard average per his 18 receptions.
“He’s one of those guys that just runs all day and plays fast every snap,” said Kelly of Agholor. “He’s tenacious every single play and has elite speed and size.”
Lee burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2011 - sharing the spotlight with teammate Robert Woods - with 73 receptions for 1,143 yards, 11 touchdowns and a 15.7-yard average per catch. Lee played the lead role last year ahead of Woods, snagging a remarkable 118 passes for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns.
With Woods still Lee’s running mate in ’12, Agholor’s arrival was a bit more measured, although his 19 receptions as a true freshman averaged 17.9 yards.
Some might be surprised to see that Notre Dame’s one-two punch at wide receiver - TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels - actually have posted better numbers this season than the Lee-Agholor tandem. Jones and Daniels have combined for 58 receptions, 866 yards and eight touchdowns while Lee and Agholor have 48 catches for 738 yards and three touchdowns.
That’s a function of having young quarterbacks Max Wittek and Cody Kessler throwing them the football as opposed to Matt Barkley. It’s not a negative reflection on the skills of Lee and Agholor as much as it is USC’s desire to lean on the rushing attack while Kessler develops. Meanwhile, for all his flaws, Tommy Rees knows how to get the football to Jones and Daniels.
“Those two are the best receivers we’ve played all year,” said Irish senior cornerback Bennett Jackson of Lee and Agholor.
“(Lee) makes plays. He’s a really explosive player. They just chuck the ball up to him and he’ll grab it. He’s a fantastic player.”
Notre Dame’s cornerback opposite Jackson - sophomore KeiVarae Russell - understands the challenge Lee presents.
“He’s not good, he’s great,” said Russell of Lee. “It starts with technique, and you can’t out-athlete him. He’s one of if not the best player in the country right now. You really have to be technically sound the entire game.”
When Kelly, Jackson and Russell talk about Agholor, all three point to his intensity as a blocker.
“(Agholor) is one of those guys that just runs all day and plays fast every snap,” Kelly said. “They needed to convert some third downs running the football late (against Arizona), and he’s in there blocking safeties, playing physical. That’s the kind of player he is, tenacious with elite speed and size.”
“He’ll block his tail off,” Jackson said. “He’ll run his routes extremely hard. You never see a dip in his play or energy. He’ll run all over the place. He’s a tremendous receiver too.”
“I would describe him as a player who plays hard each and every play,” Russell said. “He’s coming at you hard, regardless whether it’s a pass or a run. He’s coming to hit someone. A lineman, linebacker… He gives it his all. He gives you energy each and every play.”
Make no mistake, the Irish cornerbacks are ready for the challenge after containing if not shutting down Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly while limiting the Sun Devils’ offense to 17 points under their 44-point scoring average.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Jackson said. “As a cornerback, you want these match-ups. I’m excited for the game. I’m happy I get to play (against) them. I’m 100 percent confident that if I go up against (Lee) every play that I’ll win every match-up. Kei feels the same way.”
“I’ve been at the (cornerback) position for a while,” said Russell, who converted from running back to cornerback upon his arrival last summer. “There’s no excuse. I’m going in ready to play, no matter who is across from me. Confidence comes with experience.”
The evaluation of USC’s film has left Russell believing he knows how to attack Lee.
“Be technique-sound and get your hands on him,” said Russell of Lee. “That’s the one flaw he might have is getting people’s hands off him.
“I know I can run with him, so I’m not really worried about the speed. I just need to slow him down, try to frustrate him and use my hands a lot more.”
Sounds like a plan. Now, it’s a matter of executing it against one of the most dynamic pass-catching tandems in the land.