COLUMBIA — The Gamecocks won’t sit around and talk about who they don’t have. That’s a quick ticket to failure.
Deebo Samuel was marvelous throughout his South Carolina tenure, and his first injury-free season last year resulted in 13 of the Gamecocks’ 50 touchdowns. His gift of playing explosively led the San Francisco 49ers to draft him in the second round this year.
He’s gone. It’s part of life, particularly in college athletics.
The month of preseason camp, plus all of the offseason days before it began, have been filled with several plans, but a majority of them have been on how to replace what Samuel brought.
“That guy is an outstanding football player. One missed tackle and he can score on you,” USC coach Will Muschamp said, almost wistfully. "He was also a gunner, he was also on kickoff returns. He returned four (for touchdowns) in three years, so he was the best in the nation at that time in doing that. That's not going to be filled by one person.”
Neither will the most problematic issues created by Samuel’s departure. When the Gamecocks had to have a catch — such as in the red zone when their running game again went nowhere — it was usually Samuel who got the target and the result.
USC simply didn’t look good when Samuel wasn’t involved. And he wasn’t involved for only one full game in 2018 — an embarrassing 28-0 loss to Virginia in the Belk Bowl.
“All of us are explosive. We all have different abilities and whatnot, so we can all make plays,” receiver Chad Terrell confidently said. “We’ll end up where we need to be.”
The talent isn’t the question. Bryan Edwards will leave as one of the school’s greatest receivers, while Shi Smith has proven himself a reliable, often extraordinary pass catcher. The Gamecocks don’t really lose that much on kick returns, either, not with the new rules making it nearly impossible to ever get a chance to return a kickoff.
But what about that catch through traffic when the Gamecocks trailed by nine points to Missouri? That one-hander Samuel somehow hauled in against Tennessee? That one he grabbed off his kneecaps at Clemson, the first touchdown the Tigers allowed in the first quarter all year?
That’s what the Gamecocks will miss. Those are the kinds of plays where it’s not just talent, it’s some sort of magic, the kind of moments that leave onlookers shaking their heads and wondering what he will do next.
Is there any of that still on the roster?
“Deebo, it’s kind of hard to compare him to anybody,” Edwards said. “The only way we can kind of replace his production is, it’s going to take a group effort. Not one guy can be that Deebo Samuel role.”
The Belk Bowl continues to be a talking point, and an unpleasant one. The Gamecocks looked lost offensively, unable to find a play to punch the ball into the end zone. There was no Samuel to pull in a high throw, bail out a low throw or catch a bad throw.
“He’s a great player that we missed a lot,” quarterback Jake Bentley said. “But I think guys were ready to go. We just didn’t make the plays that we needed to.”
The Gamecocks have had an entire offseason to reflect on their first game without Samuel. It could have been, as Muschamp and Bentley said, one bad day.
If not having Samuel caused one bad day, are more on the horizon?