USC Top 10: On a team with plenty of question marks, Pharoh Cooper is the real thing

South Carolina’s Pharoh Cooper plays wide receiver, quarterback and on special teams. He finished third in the SEC in receiving with 69 receptions for 1,136 yards last season. Gwinn Davis/Special to The Post and Courier

In the aftermath of South Carolina’s most disappointing loss of last season, there were reasons for heartache beyond just the defeat. Tennessee’s rally from two touchdowns down in the final five minutes obscured not just one of the greatest individual performances of the year, but one of the best ever by a Gamecocks player.

Remove the final result, and Pharoh Cooper’s 286-yard, four-touchdown effort that night inspires something between amazement and awe. It wasn’t just his 233 receiving yards, a school record. It wasn’t just his 11-yard touchdown run. It wasn’t just his 30-yard scoring pass to Brandon Wilds. It was the complete package, including what seemed a victory-clinching recovery of an onside kick, turned in by one player who single-handedly kept his team in the game.

No other South Carolina player is capable of doing that. Heck, few players in the nation are capable of doing it. But Cooper, who last season finished third in the SEC with 69 receptions for 1,136 yards, is. And his triple-threat nature on a team with a green starting quarterback and no other proven receivers makes him absolutely the most important player on a Gamecocks squad that will almost certainly need his heroics to contend in the SEC.

The catch is that every team USC plays now knows what the dynamic junior is capable of, and he’ll have a target on his back from the moment he steps onto the field Sept. 3 against North Carolina. A best-case scenario is that another receiver (hello, Deebo Samuel) develops as a pass-catching threat to focus some defensive attention elsewhere, Connor Mitch settles in and removes the temptation of placing Cooper at quarterback, and the defense gets enough stops so his superhuman exploits aren’t squandered as they were in that game against Tennessee.

Worst-case? No other receiver steps up, and Cooper is double-teamed at every snap. Cooper is needed more and more behind center because the quarterback situation is a mess. And the defense gives up more points than the Havelock, N.C., native is able to generate on his own. On a team that is going to have its share of question marks, even the week of the first game, the reality will probably be somewhere in the middle.

But there are no questions surrounding Cooper, so valuable to the Gamecocks that he barely broke a sweat in spring practice. He’s going to touch the ball a lot, and in a number of different ways, and it’s important that USC not let him get beat down like he was at the end of last season. But Cooper is capable of eye-popping, off-the-charts production, and in more ways than one. He’s the kind of player whose sheer versatility makes him difficult to stop, and in theory opens up opportunities for others on the field.

Not every team has that. South Carolina does. A kid who started out as a high school safety, who came to USC as a defensive back, who had all of three career receptions prior to last season, has broken through to become the most versatile, most valuable, and most important player on his team. The goal for everyone else in garnet and black is to not let his contributions go to waste.

JULY 3: No. 10 WR Deebo Samuel

july 4: No. 9 LB Jordan Diggs

july 5: No. 8 DB Rico McWilliams

Monday: No. 7 OT Mason Zandi

Tuesday: No. 6 DE Dexter Wideman

Wednesday: No. 5 DE David Johnson

Thursday: No. 4 OT Brandon Shell

Friday: No. 3 QB Connor Mitch

SATURDAY: No. 2 DE Marquavius Lewis

SUNDAY: No. 1 WR Pharoh Cooper