NCAA Football: Western Carolina at South Carolina

Deebo Samuel's hands are the biggest key to South Carolina's success this season. Jeff Blake/USA TODAY

COLUMBIA — It wasn’t supposed to end like this, after six touchdowns in 11 quarters. Deebo Samuel’s season was supposed to end in New York for the Heisman ceremony, or Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game, or New Orleans or Pasadena or maybe even Atlanta again, for that other championship game. 

Instead it ended on an inky Saturday night in South Carolina, a thought-to-be minor injury turning into something much more serious. Samuel knew it when it happened, knew a tape job wouldn’t fix it, which explains his frustration.

He slammed his helmet down as he came off the field, the ricochet nearly reaching his chest. He sat on the bench with head back and hands covering his eyes, knowing his season was over but hoping to God it somehow wasn’t.

It was. The Gamecocks’ top receiver and kick returner — shoot, gamebreaker — was gone. To their credit, they still won nine games. Samuel was happy about that.

He was also angry, sore and full of resentment for what might have been if he’d have stayed healthy.

“I think anytime as an athlete, when the game is taken away from you, maybe personally it means a little bit more to you,” said USC coach Will Muschamp, one who knows about overcoming injuries after a compound fracture as a high school junior reduced his major college offers to zero. “But his work ethic has always been outstanding so I don’t really see a change in that. He has really attacked this offseason, and we are looking forward to getting him the ball.”

Getting him the ball. On kickoffs, where USC has made it quite clear they won’t tell Samuel to fair-catch and take the free 25 yards the NCAA wants all returners to accept. In the slot, where his small frame and magnetic hands are the first, second and sometimes third options for a hurried quarterback.

Get Samuel the ball.

The Gamecocks’ season depends on it.

“Number one did what he does with it,” receiver Bryan Edwards said, describing a play during preseason camp. Vague? No.

Everyone knows what he’s talking about.

USC’s win total didn’t drop but its offensive production did, the cherished explosive plays slipping to a heart murmur when Samuel went down. He didn’t play the last 10 games and still tied for the team lead in touchdowns.

The Gamecocks were better across the board when he was on the field. A seven-point win over N.C. State doesn’t happen without Samuel’s three touchdowns. A rout of Missouri started 10-0 Tigers before Samuel returned a kick for a TD, saw his defense get an interception and then took a 25-yard speed sweep to the house. 

He broke his leg in Game 3 against Kentucky, and USC’s third-down/overall offensive playbook lost 75 percent of its pages.

The following 11 months saw Samuel rehab his leg, then work to put his football strength back on. Reports from preseason glowed, players and coaches saying he looks better, bigger, faster, stronger.

The game beckons.

“Just excited to get back out there and play,” he said. “I don’t feel any pressure about people saying, ‘Are you going to try and do what you did last year?’”

He swore off social media due to advice from offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon and dedicated every moment he could to replacing the senior season he lost. OK, there was one dalliance — the best-dressed member of the team promised another stunning outfit for Saturday’s “Gamecock Walk” through a throng of fans to the stadium — but otherwise it was all work.

He’s never played a full season. With so much riding on him in his last try, is this the year?

He begins his last chance with the first chance he takes on Saturday.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.