**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Jenny Dilworth**
When Deebo Samuel has been healthy, he's been a nightmare for opposing defenses – and special teams. The speedster can run by defensive backs or make them miss with special juke moves. He can also run into the backfield to take a handoff, and has even passed for a touchdown. As a kick returner, Samuel averaged nearly 27 yards per return and took a kick back 100 yards for a touchdown last year against Western Carolina.
But that's only been when Samuel has been healthy, which unfortunately has not been very often in his South Carolina career. After redshirting upon arrival, Samuel played in just five games in 2015 because of injury problems. He improved last season, playing in 10-of-13 games and putting together by far his best season in the Garnet and Black. That campaign truly showed what Samuel was capable of and introduced him to the SEC.
"He's an electric guy with the ball in his hands," head coach Will Muschamp said at SEC Media Days. "We have to find multiple ways to get him the ball. That's our plan going into the season."
The Gamecocks and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper did a fantastic job of finding various ways to utilize Samuel last season. He led the squad with 783 receiving yards on 59 receptions, and when the Gamecocks were near the goal line, Samuel became an almost unstoppable threat on the ground.
South Carolina implemented a jet sweep play for Samuel near the goal line, and it resulted in a whopping six rushing touchdowns on just 15 carries.
At SEC Media Days, Samuel was named to the All-SEC third team as a receiver, and probably should've been on the list as an all-purpose back. Nevertheless, Samuel will be a pivotal part of the Gamecocks in 2017 – if he can stay healthy.
Samuel said the team started doing yoga workouts this offseason, and he attends treatment sessions three times per week to help stay healthy. Last year, the Gamecocks started taking advantage of Catapult USA, an innovative system that utilizes wearable GPS technology to track athletes and their movements, ultimately learning what causes specific injuries.
That likely played a big role in Samuel putting together a strong season in 2016. It didn't look good to start, however, as in the second game of the season at Mississippi State, Samuel strained his injury-prone hamstring on the first play. He would miss the next three games, and it looked like another long, rocky season was underway.
Instead, Samuel returned for the Georgia game and started the final eight contests of the season. The game after his return from injury was the first career start for quarterback Jake Bentley, and the two quickly hit it off. After a 2-4 start, South Carolina won four of its final six games to become bowl eligible.
"I think it built a lot of confidence coming into this year," Samuel said of the strong finish. "We were 2-4 and had the breaking point in the season and won four games."
In the final seven games of the season with Bentley at the helm, Samuel averaged nearly 90 yards receiving per contest and recorded four of his six rushing touchdowns. The highlight of the year came in the Birmingham Bowl to cap the year. Samuel shattered bowl records with 14 receptions for 190 yards, and notched his first receiving touchdown of the year. The 14 receptions also tied a school record.
It was the perfect way to enter the offseason, and now with 10 starters on offense returning, the sky is the limit.
"I feel like we're capable of anything," Samuel said. "We're not big on predictions, we just go out there and do what we're supposed to do.
"We need to push everyone in our group to be the best that they can and not settle for less."
Prior to the arrival of Muschamp, Samuel admitted that physicality wasn't South Carolina's greatest trait. However, the new coach has quickly changed the culture within the program, and Samuel is eating it up.
"Coach Muschamp came here and said, 'We're going to be a blue collar team, we're going to be physical and going to play hard,'" Samuel recalled. "That's what he brings every day."
Now Samuel just hopes he's on the field every day to maximize his potential.