Keyshawn Johnson and Curtis Conway were there before.
Double-teamed. Physically and verbally challenged by cornerbacks. Shadowed by safeties and linebackers.
The former USC and NFL receivers know Marqise Lee's situation.
Lee, last season's Biletnikoff Award winner as the most outstanding receiver in college football, was mostly shut down in USC's first two games. The junior, who caught a Pac-12 Conference record 118 passes last season, enters Saturday's game against Boston College with 15 receptions for 131 yards and no touchdowns.
In last week's loss against Washington State, Lee caught seven passes for a career-low 27 yards.
"I know it's going to be like that this season," Lee said of Washington State's strategy, which featured a gang of defensive backs whenever Lee touched the ball. "Everybody is going to be on me."
Johnson, the No. 1 pick in the 1996 NFL draft, said "everybody that's good gets double-teamed" and advised Lee to be "a little more patient."
"And not put so much pressure on himself," Johnson added.
Conway noted that Lee is suffering from the absence of former All-American receiver Robert Woods, who forced defensive coordinators to "pick their poison" the last two seasons.
"He's the bull's-eye now," said Conway, who played 12 NFL seasons.
Lee's statistics would be more impressive had he not dropped two key passes in the opener against Hawaii. However, he also has been handicapped by Coach Lane Kiffin's indecision regarding quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Max Wittek, and Kiffin's mostly conservative play-calling.
Kiffin met with Lee the day after the Washington State loss because Lee, a team captain, reacted emotionally after a few unsuccessful plays. He also muffed a punt.
"Marqise is pushing himself a little too much, trying a little bit too hard, which is very normal," Kiffin said. "He's going to have frustrations because we're not playing really well on offense."
After alternating Kessler and Wittek the first two games, Kiffin this week chose Kessler as the starter. The anticipated continuity, Kiffin hopes, will jump-start a passing game that is ranked 112th among 123 major-college teams. Kiffin variously described the passing attack as "terrible" and "a disaster" and "just totally inept" after producing only 54 yards against Washington State.
Johnson and Conway said that Kiffin's play-calling must become more inclusive. Tight end Xavier Grimble has only four receptions, Randall Telfer and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick none. Receiver Nelson Agholor has only two catches, Darreus Rogers one.
"Lane needs to do a better job of not leaning on [Lee] as much as they would like to and get the other receivers and tight ends more involved," Johnson said.
Said Conway: "You have to set Marqise up now. He can be the focal point without being the focal point."
Against Washington State, many of the play-calls for Lee were "bubble" screens behind the line of scrimmage.
"That's old now," Johnson said of the play.
Last season, with four-year starter Matt Barkley at quarterback, more than 25% of USC passes were thrown to receivers behind the line of scrimmage in the first three games. About two-thirds of passes went to receivers within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. And only four were thrown to a receiver more than 30 yards downfield.
Lee said he has not been frustrated by the calls this season.
"If I've got to run bubbles all day and run screens then that's what I'm going to do," Lee said. "I really don't care, to tell you the truth. I'm going to do whatever Kiffin wants me to do."
As a freshman, Lee caught 73 passes, 11 for touchdowns, and averaged 15.7 yards per reception. Last season, he averaged 14.6 yards per reception and caught 14 touchdown passes.
This season he is averaging 8.7 yards per catch.
Lee said he was not concerned about the lack of deep passes.
"Everybody else is tripping off that — I'm not," he said. "It will come when it comes."
In the season opener, Hawaii had a safety track Lee the entire game. Lee caught eight passes for 104 yards, but Hawaii kept him out of the end zone.
Lee anticipated a similar strategy from Washington State. "I know they're going to continue to try change up things to get me bracketed," he said before the game.
Washington State was successful, dropping eight players into coverage and taking advantage of Kiffin's unwillingness to call for many pass plays downfield. USC's longest completion against Washington State covered eight yards. Lee's longest reception was for seven.
Will Boston College adopt a similar scheme?
Lee anticipates a variation of the same theme all season.
"You get past one guy, you've got another guy waiting for you," Lee said. "This is what's going to happen to me.
"We've just got to improve on it, try to work through it and make our plays to get me open. That's really about it."
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