COLUMBIA — If it doesn’t touch the goal line, South Carolina will return it.
The Gamecocks have enough to be concerned about as preseason camp begins —offensive line depth, who the devil is going to play safety — so they won’t spend too much time on the ins and outs of the NCAA’s new kickoff regulations. Other younger, less-dynamic players might have to worry about estimating where the kick will land, waving fair-catch and then catching the ball, but at USC, that’s a discussion for next season.
The NCAA, in another move to increase safety in the game, said that any fair catch from the goal line to the 25 on kickoffs will result in the ball being placed at the 25. Thanks, USC replied, but Deebo Samuel is going to return the Gamecocks’ kicks and there will be no accepting freebies.
“We didn’t really pay that any attention because I don’t think we’re going to be fair-catching any kick returns,” Samuel said at SEC Media Days.
That’s trust in a senior to do what he feels best for the team, and hope that Samuel will receive as many chances as he did in the first three games last year before a season-ending broken leg. His kick return for a touchdown to start the season gave USC just enough room to edge N.C. State, and his kick return for a touchdown at Missouri started a run of three straight plays where the Gamecocks turned a 10-0 deficit into a 14-10 lead.
Kickers may try to boot it deep into the end zone, or kick it away from him, but if it’s staying in play, he’s going to take a chance on it.
“Deebo for 11 quarters last year was probably the most explosive player in college football,” USC coach Will Muschamp said at SEC Media Days. “Deebo will be our kickoff returner. We don't plan on fair-catching any, and we'll have competition, as far as the punt returner is concerned, in camp.”
Samuel can do so many things and open games in ways that the rest of the team can’t, so it would make no sense to tell him to limit himself, even with his injury history. His legs have been as troublesome as they are talented since he enrolled, hamstring issues shorting out his first two seasons and the broken leg ending a potential Heisman Trophy campaign last year.
USC won’t tell him to go easy and protect his lower body (and his potential NFL future) in games, so it won’t tell him to take the easy way, the NCAA’s desired way, on kickoffs. It’s been proven three times during the last two years that he can give USC a lift on special teams, so he’ll continue to get that chance.
“I feel fine,” Samuel said, declaring that he’ll be as explosive as ever when Sept. 1 rolls around. “I’m ready to roll.”
The injury caused some self-doubt, some wondering if Samuel should realize the universe was telling him he wasn’t meant to play. “I had motivation from coach Muschamp and also my parents, to be able to push myself to get back to where I was before I got hurt,” Samuel said.
But there was never much doubt that he would at least try. He never thought about attempting to work out for the NFL after the injury, pledging to return as a senior and reclaim the season he lost in 2017.
His chance waits on Sept. 1, when the Gamecocks kick off the season at home against Coastal Carolina. He’s hoping USC wins the coin toss and receives, so he can get the first chance right away.