LOS ANGELES >> Robert Woods’ goal for the upcoming season sounds fairly modest.
“Just trying to make more plays than I did last year,” he said.
Except that last season, the All-American receiver made more plays for top-ranked Southern California than anybody in school or conference history. Woods made 111 catches, breaking Keyshawn Johnson’s records in just 12 games — even without the benefit of a Pac-12 title game or a bowl game for the postseason-banned Trojans.
So just how can Woods top the most prolific season ever produced by a receiver at a school with decades of stellar offensive tradition? By improving the quality of his plays, not the quantity.
“If you check out some of the games, I had a big drop against Stanford,” Woods said. “That was a big play right there. Some missed opportunities in the Cal game, the Washington game. Those are the type of plays I need to make, and those are the plays I need to capitalize on.”
Woods clearly pays attention to details, even on plays that happened 10 months ago. Nothing has changed about his meticulous preparation and work ethic, which have pushed him above receivers with greater physical gifts at USC.
And though Woods has set a deceptively daunting goal for himself, he says he’s close to fully healthy after rehabilitating an injured ankle throughout the offseason. USC limited Woods to one practice on many two-a-day sessions, attempting to keep him in the best shape possible for Saturday’s season opener against Hawaii at the Coliseum.
If Woods can stay healthy, the Trojans think there’s no limit to what he could accomplish as a junior.
“This is the best he has looked since last year or so,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “It’s good to see him push a little more, make five or six plays in a row.”
With 176 receptions in two seasons, Woods already is the sixth-leading receiver in USC’s rich history, even without ever playing in a postseason game. He’s also just 40 catches shy of Dwayne Jarrett’s school-record 216 catches, which means Woods easily could be the leading pass-catcher in USC history by the midway point of his junior season.
But after two years of youthful overachievement, Woods seems confident in his status as an upperclassman and a team leader. He’s among the core of young talent that never considered leaving USC during its two-year postseason ban, and he’s poised for the high expectations that come with the preseason No. 1 ranking.
“It’s the same,” Woods said of the Trojans’ preparations for a season with much higher expectations.
“Last season, we didn’t have the ranking, but we still had a lot to prove, just to prove that we still are SC and on the top,” he added. “Now, we are on the top, but we still have to prove that we’re the top team every week. It’s a constant battle. Nothing really changes.”
That consistency is just one reason Woods and Marqise Lee are among the top receiving duos in the nation. The former high school teammates’ rivalry is strictly friendly, even after Kiffin said Lee had the potential to be the greatest receiver in USC history last season.
“We’re a very close group,” Lee said. “We’re always together for the most part, always going places together, even walking each other to class. There’s no bad feelings. We’re all working toward the same goal.”
Woods and Lee were the fourth tandem of 1,000-yard receivers in school history last year, while Matt Barkley set the conference record with 39 touchdown passes with an offense that scored at least 30 points in each of its final 10 games.
Woods is considered the technician of the receiving corps, while Lee is thought to be the most gifted athlete, as evidenced by his weekly production of jaw-dropping highlights in practice. Woods is a low-key, humble star in interviews — yet his Twitter handle is still (at)HeismanWoods.
Woods doesn’t shy away from those labels, seeing them as a compliment to his work — yet he also produces one-handed, diving fireworks on a regular basis. Woods’ work ethic reminds new Trojans receivers coach Tee Martin of Jerry Rice.
But Woods isn’t getting caught up in outside expectations. He’ll stick to his own goals and the Trojans’ week-to-week process of improvement, even while his fans await his next superlative achievement.
“We definitely don’t listen to any of the hype,” Woods said. “The hype is always going to be there. If you get in the game and you make a big play, that’s when you get hyped. It’s always going to be around. You keep the hype around, but if you just make your plays, the hype will come with it. We’re not even really allowed to talk about it.”