Shaq Roland arrived at South Carolina with an impressive resume and even bigger expectations.
Position: Wide receiver
Height: 6-1. Weight: 190
High school: Lexington
Coming out of Lexington High School, Roland was the fourth straight South Carolina Mr. Football — joining cornerback Stephon Gilmore, running back Marcus Lattimore and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney — to sign with the Gamecocks since 2009. Roland was the nation’s 66th-ranked prospect in the country and the 10th best wide receiver, according to Rivals.com.
Roland was expected to have the kind of impact on the Gamecocks’ passing game that Gilmore, Lattimore and Clowney had at their respective positions.
Combine that with the departure of All-American wide receiver Alshon Jeffery to the NFL a year early, and Roland was already being penciled in on many of the preseason SEC All-Freshmen teams.
But like a lot of blue chip recruits, Roland struggled with the transition from high school to college.
“There were times when Shaq was lost out there last year,” said USC receiver coach Steve Spurrier Jr. “There were times when he didn’t know where he needed to be. He didn’t have a real good grasp of the offense.”
Translation: Roland didn’t know the playbook like he should have as a freshman.
Truth be told, Roland thought his athletic ability would be enough to excel in the SEC. Was it arrogance or ignorance?
Roland said it was probably a combination of both.
Although he played in 11 games, he caught just five passes for 80 yards and one touchdown. Roland realized after the season was over that the only person to blame for his lack of production was himself.
“The reason I didn’t play more last year was all on me,” Roland said. “It wasn’t the coaching staff or anything like that. It was my fault. I didn’t know the plays like I should have. I wasn’t focused like I should have been, and I didn’t do what I needed to do to get on the field.”
It was the first time in Roland’s life that he had been humbled on the football field.
“Last year I came in here thinking that I’d dominate college like I had in high school. Like it was going to just happen for me in college like it did in high school,” Roland said.
Almost from the first practice, Roland realized that wasn’t going to be the case.
“I learned that everyone out here is just as good as I am,” Roland said. “You have to focus on the little things if you’re going to get on the field.”
Roland rededicated himself during the offseason.
He spent hours scouring the playbook, learning not only his position, but all the wide receiver positions.
He got stronger, putting on 15 pounds of muscle to help against the physical cornerbacks in the SEC. He also changed his approach to the practice, treating it more like an occupation.
“It wasn’t just that I didn’t know the plays,” Roland said. “It was my attitude. I didn’t treat it like a job. I didn’t come out here every day looking to make myself better. That’s the difference from last year.”
Roland’s attention to detail and his newfound work ethic have not gone unnoticed.
“Shaq has gotten a little bit better,” Spurrier Jr. said. “I think any player from one year to the next year is going to be more mature. He’s a little more comfortable, a little more intelligent and he’s moving around out there like he knows what he’s doing. I’m kind of fired up to watch him as we move forward.”
Even wide receiver Bruce Ellington has seen a difference in Roland.
“He’s out to send a message to everyone,” Ellington said. “Shaq has all the ability in the world, and I think people are going to see that this season.”
The time for talk is over, Roland said.
“I’m at a point where I’m comfortable with the playbook and I know what I’m supposed to do on every play,” Roland said. “Now, I’ve got to go out and get it done on the field. I feel like I’ve got to prove myself all over again this year.”