The receiver made these flashy plays look easy a year ago when Matt Barkley was sailing passes his way. On Saturday, he found himself standing in front of the Southern California band positioned by the end zone, the ball bouncing somewhere behind him. The ball “slipped right from my leg,” Lee said, as he tried to hold on with a Notre Dame corner close behind. Lee was gone by halftime because of a re-aggravated knee injury.
Not many players in college football this year have been affected more by the NFL draft rules than Lee, whose workload against the Irish (two catches, 18 yards in one half) accentuates the frustrating year for the receiver and his Trojans.
Lee is in his third year of college, just like South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, the poster child for the NFL rule that requires a player be at least three years out of high school before joining the league.
But at least Clowney, barring injury, seems a lock for a top-three selection in April.
After a video-game stat line of 118 catches, 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns a year ago, Lee seemed poised to become a top 10 pick.
Though he still could be, CBSSports.com draft analyst Rob Rang said there's no question Lee's stock has dropped a bit this year because of dropped passes and injuries. Lee, who has dropped a catchable pass in at least three games, would have competed with Tavon Austin to crack the Top 10 a year ago but “that high of a selection hardly appears certain now,” Rang said.
Thanks to players of Clowney and Lee's ability, arguments have grown for players to sit out a year of college to avoid injury and prepare for the draft, though Lee's $10 million insurance policy helps matters.
On his way from the stadium to the team bus after Saturday's 14-10 loss to Notre Dame, Lee told CBSSports.com a player with a huge sophomore year faces pressure in his third season. But he also doesn't resent the three-year rule and didn't quite feel ready for the NFL last year – not based on natural ability, but the extra year is helping him prepare.
He's talked to Clowney about this, he says. The two are friends and keep in touch. Both were heavy on last year's postseason awards circuit, with Lee taking home the Biletnikoff Award given to the nation's best receiver.
“There's always room for improvement as a athlete,” said Lee, who has 32 catches for 403 yards and one touchdown through five-and-a-half games. “I know I can speak for Clowney, too, I know his main focus is trying to improve and do the things you're supposed to do. But it's hard when people know the type of talent you have and how much they put on you. I think I've enjoyed coming back and doing my third year.”
Based on a 13-game season, Lee is on pace for 76 receptions, 951 yards and two touchdowns. This is productive work but pales in comparison to his combined 25 touchdowns in his first two seasons.
Lee has garnered more attention from defenses this year, he says, and the continuity with Barkley – his quarterback his first two years at USC – is gone. Both are factors to the declining production. In fact, Clowney told him before the season that teams would scheme for him, Lee said. Not helping matters is Lee tweaking his already sprained knee against the Irish.
Lee doesn't see this year as a chance for his NFL stock to drop. He has the rest of this season and, assuming he goes pro, combine workouts to solidify his place.
Until then, Lee is improving in subtle areas of the game.
“As far as blocking, I haven't reached my potential yet,” Lee said. “It's not time to go to the NFL yet. Until that time, I'll continue to work.”
Lee knows this year has been difficult personally, but as bad as things have gone for USC, the Trojans are still 4-3 with a chance to punctuate a horrendous year as a Pac-12 spoiler. The team likes playing for interim coach Ed Orgeron, who rocked a black leather jacket into Notre Dame Stadium in the pregame. He huddled the team in a circle at midfield and organized a team prayer.
Lee's knee flare-up is minor. Chemistry with Kessler is growing, he says.
Perhaps he can still get his spot back as the nation's best.
“It's kind of tough, two years being with one quarterback and having to switch to another, but we're just working,” Lee said. “Cody's doing an amazing job and becoming a great leader. I look up to him actually, redshirt freshman coming in and doing what he has to do.”