That all changed Sunday at the Coliseum and in dramatic fashion, as the sophomore exploded for 122 yards and three touchdowns to spark the USC passing offense in its final live test before its season opener.
"We thought it was more critical to get our passing game with Robert healthy, to get those guys on the same page with the emergence of Marqise Lee," USC head coach Lane Kiffin said. "That showed today. Definitely."
Woods looked spry and showed no ill effects from the sprained right ankle he injured in the spring, but the reigning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year was at his best improvising with quarterback Matt Barkley.
The two showed an almost supernatural connection for knowing what the other is doing, best demonstrated when the junior found Woods in single coverage and heaved it deep for a 42-yard touchdown.
"He just adds a level of … I don't know what it is, but we are just on the same page," Barkley said. "Whether it is telepathically or something else, I just know what he is going to do."
That rapport became apparent early on last year, as the Gardena (Calif.) Serra product would lead the Trojans in catches and receiving yards. Lee, Woods' high school teammate, is unlikely to duplicate that feat but will at least have the chance to do so.
"He definitely showed me he is going to play a lot. Whether he is going to start or not, I don't know that yet," Kiffin said.
The former safety caught seven passes for 165 yards with a 40-yard touchdown, but was most impressive hanging onto a slant after being leveled by safety T.J. McDonald. Lee bounced up almost immediately.
"You could see his mindset," Kiffin said. "Majority of guys right there after they finally get up go to the sidelines. He tried to go right back to the huddle. That shows you what we got there."
While Kiffin would prefer a larger, more veteran presence opposite Woods, he did say Lee plays bigger than his 6-foot, 190-pound frame might suggest and also offers the speed to stretch the field.
"We pride ourselves on playing the best players regardless of age. We put Robert ahead of a lot of older guys last year and started him right off the bat," Kiffin said.
After completing one of his first seven passes, Barkley ended up 15 of 25 for 261 yards, five touchdowns and one interception, all against the second defense but showing the potential for the third-year starter.
"He just continues to move along," Kiffin said. "I just hope these pieces that we are seeing work a little bit here stay healthy for him, so we can do some good things around him. If we do, he could have a real special year."
-Running back Curtis McNeal exited the scrimmage with an undisclosed injury after rushing twice for 20 yards. The redshirt junior suffered a knee injury on the opening drive of last week's scrimmage and made it through just three possessions Sunday.
"It's nothing against his toughness at all, he is tough as can be," Kiffin said. The one downside he has right now is every time we get in a tackling format he gets banged up."
-After being all but ruled out by Kiffin on Saturday, running back D.J. Morgan (knee) was able to participate in the scrimmage, rushing 12 times for 44 yards.
-Wide receiver George Farmer (concussion) did not play after doing through warm-ups.
-Freshman kicker Andre Heidari made both of his field goal attempts, converting from 48 and 32 yards.