By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe
NOTE: Spurs & Feathers will preview every position on the 2018 team leading up to the opening of training camp on Aug. 3.
Ask any South Carolina player or coach about the return of Deebo Samuel and their eyes light up.
Samuel, who returns for his senior season, was one of the most explosive players in the country at the start of last season, scoring six touchdowns in the first three games before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. His return not only gives the Gamecocks a dangerous all-purpose player, but one of the best wide receiver groups in the country.
Junior Bryan Edwards had another outstanding season last year, catching 64 passes for 793 yards and five touchdowns. He has 10 touchdowns in his first two seasons. And with Samuel missing nine games, true freshmen OrTre and Shi Smith both stepped up, catching 30 and 29 passes, respectively, and scoring three touchdowns each. Shi Smith scored the game-winner in South Carolina's thrilling 26-19 win over Michigan in the Outbowl Back.
With all four wide-outs returning in 2018, South Carolina's receiver group is considered one of the best in the nation. Athlon's has Samuel — a preseason All-American — and crew rated as the second-best unit in the SEC and fourth in the nation.
"All of us bring different things to the table," Samuel said. "Seeing those guys step up the way they did last year is going to be a big boost to our offense this year. … I feel like we are capable of anything."
"One man's misfortune is another man's opportunity," head coach will Muschamp said. "Deebo went down and that allowed Bryan Edwards to be the feature guy and he certainly accepted and did extremely well. Shi Smith was a true freshman I thought played outstanding. OrTre Smith was a true freshman I thought he played outstanding. I think we have got a good group of receivers."
The Gamecocks will go with three-receiver sets most of the time and line up with four on the field at times in its up-tempo offense. Edwards (6-3, 220) and OrTre Smith (6-4, 222) give the offense two big targets on the outside with Shi Smith playing in the slot and Samuel moving all around the field.
Samuel scored three receiving touchdowns last year and added another rushing in addition to his two kickoff returns for touchdowns. Six of his eight touchdowns as a sophomore came on the ground.
Edwards and OrTre give the Gamecocks two big targets on sideline routes and in the red zone, while offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon will try to get Samuel and Shi the ball over the middle and in open space as much as possible.
The key is Samuel, who has 15 career touchdowns in just 18 games and whose presence will make the other three more effective.
Asked what he expects out of Samuel, Muschamp said, "A bunch of good plays."
"You look at 11 quarters last year and he was probably as electric as any player in college football. That's certainly our expectation."
While Samuel and Edwards are expected to shine in South Carolina's high-octane offense, OrTre and Shi Smith also flashed vast potential last year and will be tough matchups as third and fourth options.
OrTre is in better shape, Muschamp said, and excels at going up and getting the ball.
"He is really strong-handed and heavy-handed on the top of routes to finish plays. Really excited about OrTre being a tough matchup," Muschamp said.
Shi Smith is similar to Samuel — a player who can get behind secondaries, like he did against Michigan, and make plays in open space.
"I think he'll have an outstanding year," Muschamp said. "He's a guy who has really gotten his body stronger and he looks much better than he did a year ago from a weight-room standpoint. He really bought into the work ethic, he has really good ball skills, he's got explosive change of direction in the slot. He's a difficult guy to cover in man-to-man and he can win against press coverage."
The Gamecocks have another trio of experienced receivers who can step in case of another injury or to provide even more options.
Randrecous Davis, who like Samuel has battled injuries throughout his career, has started three games and has 10 catches in limited action over the past two seasons. He'll back up Samuel and Shi Smith in the slot.
Junior Chavis Dawkins and sophomore Chad Terrell are big receivers who can back up Edwards and OrTre Smith. Terrell will miss most of training camp after knee surgery but is expected to return by September.
Muschamp added three more receivers in the 2018 recruiting class in Josh Vann, Tyquan Johnson and Darius Rush. Vann is a four-star recruit from Tucker, Ga. who could be a factor right away. Muschamp says he's "a very Shi Smith-like guy as far as explosiveness."
"I've been impressed with Josh Vann in the short time we've been working with him," he said.