By Josh Hyber/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
Deebo Samuel wanted to reward the smattering of fans who sat in the rain at Williams-Brice Stadium in fluorescent-colored ponchos. The students who bundled together in the 55-degree chill and tied together rally towels.
More than that, the South Carolina senior wanted to thank the Garnet & Black faithful for supporting him during his entire historic career, one that saw him rise in the Gamecock record book despite missing almost two full seasons due to injuries.
In the last game Samuel will play in Columbia, a 28-3 South Carolina (7-5) victory over Akron (4-8), he put together one of his best performances, touchdown-wise, as a Gamecock, catching four passes for 33 yards and two touchdowns.
And, pounding home the point that the playmaker just finds ways to score, he pounced on a loose ball for a touchdown on special teams when a poor snap sailed over the head of Akron punter Nick Gasser and into the end zone.
“Every time we get the ball, we try to get it in the box,” Samuel said after last week’s game against Clemson in which he scored three touchdowns.
“He just loves football. I think if [our coaches] wanted him to go play safety, he’d do it,” Gamecock quarterback Jake Bentley said. “… Just the way he plays, it helps our team so much. I said it before the season, just the confidence he brings our team, is unlike any other. Everyone knows he can change a game with one play. He’s a great player and he keeps making plays for us.”
The two receiving touchdows moved him into sole possession of second-place for most single-season receiving touchdowns. He now has 16 career receiving touchdowns, tying him with Bryan Edwards and Bruce Ellington (2011-13) for ninth all-time. His fumble recovery touchdown was the 27th total touchdown of his career, tying him with Brandon Bennett (1991-94) and Cory Boyd (2003-07) for fourth in school history.
The 6-foot, 210-pounder also became the first player in school history to recover, pass for, catch and return a touchdown during his South Carolina career.
“He just really played extremely well and has been a great football player here at the University of South Carolina,” Gamecock head coach Will Muschamp said after the game. “He’s gone through a lot of adversity this last year, obviously.
“[But] when he’s been on the field he’s been as an electric player as there is in college football.”
Just over five minutes into Saturday’s game, Samuel plucked a Jake Bentley flip, followed the blocking of running back Rico Dowdle and tackle Blake Camper 15 yards into the end zone to give the home team an early lead.
The special teams’ score came midway through the second quarter.
Akron long snapper Cameron Lyons’ snap eluded Gasser and flew between the C and K in the word Gamecocks in the south end zone. A scrum ensued, but when all was said and done, No. 1 emerged with it to give the Gamecocks an eventual 21-3 lead.
“The object is to go get the ball when you see the ball on the ground,” Samuel said. “We just went out there and made a play.”
Six minutes later, Bentley moved into sole possession of second place on SC’s single-season passing touchdown record with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Samuel to give the Gamecocks a 28-3 lead.
“He just goes out there and attacks the game how a player is supposed to attack it,” Gamecock receiver Bryan Edwards said.
“It was very special,” Samuel said. “I had to cherish the moment because it was going to be my last time out there.”
The day was a microcosm of Samuel’s career, one he admitted he did not envision going as well as it did when he arrived.
There were many standout performances: when he tied the school record for catches with 14 against South Florida in the 2016 Birmingham Bowl (for 190 yards), his three-touchdown game last week at Clemson and his penchant for big games against NC State, including two receiving touchdowns and a 97-yard kickoff return in the 2017 season-opener.
“Any time you get a guy who can score from any part of the field, that helps you,” South Carolina offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon said before this season. “Obviously, he’s one of those guys who can do that.”
His performance against the Tigers this season (10 catches for 210 yards and three touchdowns) tied Troy Williamson for second-most receiving yards in a game by a Gamecock.
He also hauled in a career-best 89-yard reception against Florida, which is the seventh-longest play in South Carolina history.
Samuel also led off this season’s Ole Miss victory with an electrifying 90-yard kickoff return touchdown. It was the fourth of his college career (Western Carolina, NC State and Missouri being the others), which tied an SEC record.
Samuel began his freshman in 2015 with a 10-yard catch against Kentucky and ended it, after sitting out seven games with a hamstring injury, to catch five passes for 104 and his first-career touchdown against Clemson.
As a sophomore he shared the Steve Wadiak MVP Award with Bentley and was the Steve Spurrier Award winner as the team’s offensive MVP. He also returned a kickoff (against Western Carolina), had a rushing touchdown against Missouri and two rushing touchdowns against Western Carolina. He also threw a 33-yard touchdown pass, against Clemson.
He played in just three games as a junior because of a broken leg but still tied for the team lead with six touchdowns (three receiving, two kickoff returns and one rushing). He was averaging 158 yards of total offense per game before the injury, and some sites projected him as a “way too early” Heisman Trophy candidate.