By Jeff Owens/Photos by Jenny Dilworth
Deebo Samuel is taking the nation by storm, popping up on Heisman Trophy lists after a spectacular start to the 2017 season.
With five touchdowns in two games, including two 97-yard kickoff returns, Samuel instantly went from one of the most versatile players in the SEC to one of the best all-around players in the country.
The nation may be surprised. His coaches and teammates are not.
"You saw day one when Deebo walked in, you knew he was going to be a dynamic player," senior linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams said.
Samuel immediately gained national attention when he returned the opening kickoff of the season 97 yards for a touchdown at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. Samuel also caught two touchdown passes that day, including a spectacular 39-yard, one-handed grab. He had five catches for 83 yards and 185 all-purpose yards.
In week two, Deebo was at it again, returning another kickoff for a touchdown and darting 25 yards for another score on an end-around run. He caught five passes for 45 yards and had 167 all-purpose yards, giving him 352 in two games. He was named SEC Special Teams Player of the Week for each of the first two weeks of the season.
In just two weeks, Samuel is being mentioned in the same conversation as 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and 2017 contenders Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen.
To head coach Will Muschamp and his teammates, there is no question that Samuel should be a Heisman candidate.
“I don’t know what else is out there, but I know the impact he’s had on our football team," head coach Will Muschamp said. "In two ball games, I don’t know anybody that’s impacted (their team) more than he has."
"You see how he changes the game by himself," quarterback Jake Bentley said. "If one man can change the game that much, I definitely think he needs to be on that list and get national attention because he's just a dynamic playmaker and just an explosive player to have on our team."
If Samuel continues to be a Heisman candidate, he may be the most soft-spoken, humble athlete of the group.
"I don't pay that much attention (to it)," he said. "I just go out there and play the game."
Samuel had a profound impact on the first two games and South Carolina's 2-0 start with his kickoff returns alone. He gave the Gamecocks a quick 7-0 lead against favored NC State, jumpstarting the 35-28 victory. At Missouri, they trailed 10-0 when Samuel took another kickoff back. Less than 30 seconds later, after a Missouri turnover, his 25-yard touchdown run gave his team the lead.
"It gives the whole team a lift," Bentley said of Samuel's kickoff returns. "It really gets us going and takes some pressure off the offense for us. He's just an incredible athlete and unbelievable force."
"He had a couple of injuries the first two years, but he is a breakout player and a star player and I'm glad he is on my team and we don't have to play against him every week," Allen-Williams said.
Samuel's kickoff returns have shined a spotlight on South Carolina's special teams, a unit Muschamp puts great emphasis on. The Gamecocks work hard on special teams every day and had the kickoff returns designed for Samuel in both games.
Between Samuel's explosiveness and the team's emphasis on kickoff returns, his teammates actually called the touchdown return against NC State.
"We spend every day on special teams and we also have a plan day in and day out," Samuel said. "Everybody has a job and if somebody's man gets beat, we know who that person is. But I think we all bought in and we trust the position coaches to put us in the right spots."
Muschamp gives partial credit to his kickoff return team. He uses the special teams units for young players and backups to prove themselves. On Samuel's two returns, he singled out TE Kiel Pollard, S Javon Charleston, WR Chavis Dawkins, TE Evan Hinson and LB Antoine Wilder.
"We've had some guys that have made some key blocks to spring him and create a one-on-one, which he's going to win a lot of those in space," Muschamp said. "He certainly did the other night. I think that we've done a nice job."
Samuel has proven he can score in more ways than one. He scored nine touchdowns last year — six rushing, two receiving and one by kickoff return. He was third in the SEC in kickoff returns and second in all-purpose yardage. He even threw a touchdown pass.
The Gamecocks entered the offseason with plans to get Samuel the ball any way they can. The challenge now is to keep getting him the ball with defenses keying on him.
"Motion, shifts, anything that we can do to get him the ball, we are definitely going to do it," Bentley said. "Just getting more creative in a lot of different ways. I think we showed that Saturday, that we can do a lot of different things to attack a defense. That's really exciting. If they take one aspect of Deebo away, there are some other guys who can make plays and we can find ways to get him the ball."
Samuel is not worried about becoming the focus on opposing defenses. Missouri focused on him early in the game and Samuel broke loose on the first plays of the second quarter.
"As you saw last game, I didn't touch the ball in the first (quarter), so I thought they were keying on me then," he said. "That's what we have other players for and I just play my role in the game."
Samuel's presence on the field creates a big advantage for an offense that has plenty of other playmakers. Running back Rico Dowdle scored twice against NC State and tight end Hayden Hurst had a receiving and rushing touchdown against Missouri. Wide receiver Bryan Edwards has 10 catches in the first two games.
"We have a lot more weapons in our offense to use," Bentley said. "That's one of the big things we look at, the match-ups we have on the field. A lot of our guys are favorable in a lot of match-ups.
"It is a very unselfish group of guys. If Deebo scores, Hayden and Bryan are cheering just as much as he is. It makes my job easy. There are no egos to deal with or anything like that. They just want to win and that's great to have on your offense."
The Gamecocks move Samuel all over the field to get him open and to open up the offense. So far this year, he's played in the slot, lined up out wide and in the backfield. Muschamp says Samuel not only has the athleticism and versatility to play all over the field, but the intelligence to read defenses and take advantage.
“I think that Deebo is an extremely bright young man. He understands that whatever attention he gets is well-deserved," Muschamp said. "I think we’ve done a fantastic job of being creative and doing different things to move him around.
"He can play inside. He can play outside. He can play in the backfield if we asked him to, so that makes it more difficult for a defense to find him. And we’re going to continue to do so.”
A big part of Samuel's early-season success can be attributed to his health. He missed parts of his freshman year and three games last season due to hamstring injuries.
Samuel and the team have changed his conditioning routine, focusing on diet and hydration and monitoring his reps in practice. He has also joined his teammates in taking yoga.
"I actually didn't like yoga," he said. "I am not a flexible guy so every position they put me in kinda hurt. But I do think it helped."
Muschamp also believes Samuel's commitment has played a part in him staying healthy and his performance on the field.
“He stayed here in May and lifted and didn’t take a month off," Muschamp said. "I think all of those things are a (factor) but he personally has invested himself in this. We can’t be with them all the time, but he certainly, on his own, has worked extremely hard in this position.”
To Samuel, he's simply doing what he knew he was capable of all along.
"I feel good. I also feel that my hamstring is back strong and I am showing y'all what I am capable of when I'm healthy," he said.