COLUMBIA — Sometime over the next three games, Bryan Edwards will harness another football between his battle-scarred hands and become the most prolific wide receiver South Carolina has ever had.
The senior from Conway already holds USC records for career receptions (225) and consecutive games with a catch (47). He needs 88 yards to pass Alshon Jeffery’s 3,042 and become No. 1 on that list, and three touchdowns to pass Jeffery and Sidney Rice for the career receiving touchdowns mark (23).
Is Edwards the most productive receiver in school history? Not much doubt now, and none when he gets that yardage record.
Is Edwards the greatest receiver in school history?
The answer is to be determined, but that only raises another question.
What constitutes the greatest?
The only stain on Edwards’ USC resume is the Gamecocks’ record in his four years. USC is 26-22 with three games left, four if USC goes to a bowl game.
The late Kenny McKinley had 28 wins in his career, Jeffery 27. Those two tower over Sterling Sharpe (21) and Sidney Rice (15).
There are asterisks. Sharpe redshirted in 1984, the Gamecocks’ only 10-win season until Steve Spurrier posted a trifecta of 11-win years from 2011 to 2013, and Rice redshirted in 2004 (6-5). Those wins aren’t counted in their totals.
Rice and Jeffery also departed for the NFL after their third seasons. And there’s the biggest consideration — it’s not a wide receiver’s fault if the team around him isn’t very good.
“I wish we had a better record this season, but I can’t say nothing bad about (Edwards),” former USC receiver Jermale Kelly said. “I’ve been to several games and every time he’s always the go-to receiver.”
Kelly could be called the Bryan Edwards before Bryan Edwards. He still ranks seventh in USC history with 153 catches, eighth with 2,181 yards and is tied for third with 19 touchdowns.
But his career (1997-2000) included a 21-game losing streak, which prevented him from receiving the notoriety of a Sharpe, Jeffery or McKinley despite his numbers.
“It’s funny, because I definitely had conversations of that nature with several other players and friends,” Kelly said. “It was frustrating at times for myself and other receivers that were there. Having a losing season made it even worse.”
Kelly had three losing seasons among four. Edwards had one and could have another.
Jeffery was so talented that any one of his games could comprise his career highlight tape. He made impossible catches look so routine that it was sometimes a shrug when he caught another one-hander.
Edwards has had his share of “wow” catches, which were all topped by the grab he had two weeks ago at Tennessee. Somehow Edwards grabbed the tip of the ball on a sizzler thrown by Ryan Hilinski and completed the one-handed catch while falling out of bounds.
“Bryan Edwards extends to make the catch, that’s my No. 1 play,” NFL Hall of Famer Randy Moss said while reviewing it.
“It’s pretty cool when you get a shout-out from Randy Moss and all those guys on ‘Monday Night Football,’” Edwards said.
The jaw-dropping catch shouldn’t be diminished, but it definitely would have been greater had USC won the game. Even Edwards acknowledged at SEC Media Days that he wanted all of the records, but he wanted wins more.
He brushed off the Tennessee catch because the Gamecocks lost.
“Maybe the next day, you’re like, ‘Wow, this really happened,’” he said. “But it’s just something I’ve been doing since I’ve been young.”
Kelly, famous for catching “The Fade” to beat Mississippi State in 2000, overruled.
“Honestly, there’s no comparison,” Kelly said. “That was a hell of a catch he made.”
The next step
Edwards’ NFL future shouldn’t have any impact on how great he was at USC. In his 11th NFL season, tight end Jared Cook is lauded as a USC legend, but what Gamecock fans remember most from his college days was a pass he dropped, one that could have beaten Auburn in 2006.
Edwards won’t have that problem. He’ll be a USC legend no matter what he does in pro football.
“He continues to set every record at that position here at the University of South Carolina,” coach Will Muschamp said. “You think about some of the greats that have played here, and Bryan is certainly in that category.”
Edwards’ name will replace those of McKinley (catches) and Jeffery (yards) on a ramp at Williams-Brice Stadium, and could either join Jeffery and Rice or pass both if he catches three more touchdowns. That banner will display the numbers.
“That’s what I wanted to be when I stepped on campus,” Edwards said. “It’s obviously an honor to have your name up there, and I feel like I deserve it. I worked for it.”
What will be the memories? A guy who was always there, ready to line up again, geared to run his route with surgical precision, willing to sacrifice his body to catch a 7-yard pass that can move the chains and set up the game-winning score?
Or a record-holder who played on teams that never quite had that big win or got to that championship level?
Bryan Edwards is the most prolific receiver in USC history. Numbers don’t lie.
But is he the best?