COLUMBIA — It was only one game, but it was as healthy as he’d been all season, and it may have offered a preview of what Deebo Samuel is capable of.
The redshirt freshman season of the South Carolina wide receiver was wrecked by a recurrent hamstring injury, first suffered in the opener against North Carolina, and ultimately limiting him to just five games. Rather than emerge as the complement to All-SEC performer Pharoh Cooper, Samuel again and again went to practice only to re-aggravate the hamstring and end up back on the shelf.
The injury left him without a catch against North Carolina, in his first career start. He managed three receptions over the next two weeks, and then missed seven consecutive games. His position coach spoke as if Samuel might miss the remainder of the season. Then came the finale against No. 1 Clemson, and an eye-opening performance from a player who seemed to have it in him all along.
It was Cooper’s last game, but it was Samuel who stole the show, making five receptions for a team-high 104 yards and his first career touchdown. On a third-quarter scoring drive the Gamecocks needed to stay in the game, Samuel accounted for 65 of 76 yards, including a 48-yard pickup and a 7-yard touchdown.
Samuel finished the season with 12 receptions for 161 yards — still enough to make him South Carolina’s top returning receiver — with nine of those catches and 131 of those yards coming in the final two games against The Citadel and Clemson. Now, with Cooper beginning his rookie season with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, Samuel is no longer looked upon to play a complementary role.
For all the promise in freshman Bryan Edwards and running back-turned-slotback Jamari Smith, it’s Samuel who needs to take the leap and become USC’s No. 1 receiver, adding some clarity to a muddled position. Brandon McIlwain, Perry Orth, or whomever takes the snap from center will need a reliable receiver to look to, and Samuel remains the top candidate to fill that role.
“Last year I was really hurt,” he said in the spring. “I was going through a lot of adversity trying to come back. I came back the last two games, did pretty well. I’m coming back his season, pushing myself harder to try to get to the top.”
Since the Clemson game, there has been no evidence of the hamstring injury which derailed so much of Samuel’s 2015 season. The Inman native finished the spring game — where younger players saw the bulk of the action — with four catches for 31 yards, and added a 33-yard rush. Samuel, Edwards and Smith ended the spring as the top three receivers on the USC depth chart.
Now, it’s his job to stay there. “Deebo Samuel is a guy who’s really distanced himself,” head coach Will Muschamp said after the spring game. Quarterback and receiver were the two biggest question marks for the Gamecocks entering Muschamp’s first spring practice, and a healthy Samuel appears quite capable of erasing one of them.