USC Top 10: Deebo Samuel primed to help take target off Pharoh Cooper’s back

He’s never played in a college game, much less caught a pass in one. But receiver Deebo Samuel could emerge as an important piece in a South Carolina offense that features an All-American at the same position.

Pharoh Cooper may be able to do it all, but as the lone wideout returning to USC with any real statistics from last season, he’s going to be a focus of opposing defenses every time he steps onto the field. It’s critical that another receiving option develop for the Gamecocks, who’ll need it to both take some pressure off Cooper, and help in the development of first-year starting quarterback Connor Mitch.

If there’s any player who seems to fit that description now, it’s Samuel, a redshirt freshman who spent last season working with the scout team. Beyond Cooper, there’s a true void at receiver for the Gamecocks, whose top returning wideout other than Cooper is Shamier Jeffery, who caught two passes last year.

In steps Samuel, who made 61 receptions for 1,184 yards as a senior at Chapman High School in Inman, and earned high praise from USC coaches for his work in spring practice. The 6-foot, 206-pounder topped the depth chart at the Gamecocks’ other receiving positon in the spring.

“He’s strong, quick, physical. He’s got some Bruce Ellington characteristics, he really does,” receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. said in the spring, referring to the former Gamecocks standout now with the San Francisco 49ers. “He catches the ball well. Toward the end of last year, he really did a lot of good things. I think he’s got a chance to be a really good player, but time will tell.”

That time is fast approaching. Cooper, who made 69 receptions for 1,136 yards last season, is the Gamecocks’ unquestioned receiving star. But with the reliable Nick Jones graduated, the mercurial Shaq Roland transferred, and the speedy Damiere Byrd trying to make the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent, there’s ample opportunity for someone else to step up as a receiving threat.

In the spring, when he won the offensive “big plays” award, Samuel looked like the best bet. And if he can show that same form during the season, Cooper and the Gamecocks will be the better for it.