By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe and Jenny Dilworth
Deebo Samuel will never forget the moment when he hit the turf at Williams-Brice Stadium with his ankle bent awkwardly beneath him.
Samuel was running a curl route in the third quarter against Kentucky when a defensive back leaped onto his back and tried to drag him to the ground. As he went down, Samuel's ankle got stuck in the turf, bending it under the weight of the Wildcat defender.
Samuel, who scored on a 68-yard touchdown reception on the first play of the game, laid on the field for several seconds, holding his left ankle as the Williams-Brice crowd held their collective breath. After limping to the sideline, he had his ankle taped and went back into the game for three more plays. But he knew immediately something was wrong.
"At that time, my adrenaline was rushing … but I felt it popping," he said.
The South Carolina medical staff X-rayed Samuel's ankle during the fourth quarter and delivered the bad news after the game.
"When they told me it was broken, I really flipped out," he said. "It was very emotional."
The injury was the only thing that could slow the explosive Samuel at the start of last season. And, unfortunately, it put a halt to one of the best individual starts in the country. Samuel scored six touchdowns in the first three games, including three in the season-opening win over NC State.
At the start of his third year in Columbia, the junior from Inman, S.C. took the opening kickoff of the season 97 yards for a touchdown at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. In the second quarter, he scored on a six-yard slant to give the Gamecocks a 21-14 lead. And in the third quarter, he hauled in a 39-yard touchdown pass from Jake Bentley to put South Carolina up 28-21 in the 35-28 victory.
A week later, he scored twice in 15 seconds — including another 97-yard kickoff return — in a 31-13 win at Missouri. With five touchdowns in two games, Samuel was being mentioned as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate as the Gamecocks prepared for their home opener. When he took a Bentley pass and raced 68 yards for another score on the first play from scrimmage against Kentucky, the sold-out crowd at Williams-Brice went absolutely bonkers.
With 15 touchdowns in his first 18 games at South Carolina, Samuel had emerged as one of the most explosive and dangerous players in the country.
"For 11 quarters last year Deebo was probably the most explosive player in college football," head coach Will Muschamp said. "He was electric."
Then came the injury, which caused Samuel to miss the final 10 games of the season and had a profound impact on the South Carolina offense.
"Not only did our offense take a hit confidence-wise, but it kind of did it to our whole team," said Bentley, who helped rally the Gamecocks to a 9-4 season.
It marked the third straight year that South Carolina's best offensive weapon missed time because of injuries. Samuel missed seven games as a freshman with hamstring injuries and three more as a sophomore, when he accounted for nine touchdowns in just 10 games.
Samuel was used to battling nagging injuries, but suffering a break that wiped out most of his junior season took a toll on him both physically and mentally.
"You get down on yourself and you think that maybe football is not for you, but I couldn't look at it that way," Samuel said. "I had motivation from my coaches and also my parents who were motivating me to push to get back to the level before I got hurt."
Samuel admits there were days during his rehab when he felt "sick and broken." But "you push through it," he said.
"Going through any type of injury, you are going to get down on yourself. It's just how you attack it."
With just one more semester before graduating, Samuel decided to skip the NFL Draft and return for his senior season. He worked relentlessly during the offseason to retain the speed and athleticism that made him one of the most dynamic players in the country.
As Saturday’s season opener approaches, Samuel looks healthy and ready to recapture the form that made headlines last year.
“He’s really explosive and looks like himself. He’s been 100 percent,” Bentley said.
Samuel said Tuesday he’s faster and stronger than last season and anxious to return to the field for game action.
“I’m really ready to get back out there,” he said. “It’s been 11 months, I’m just excited to get back out there and play.”
Muschamp is not surprised that Samuel has bounced back from the injury and is ready to return to form.
"God puts you through situations where you can handle the situation. He is stronger from it," he said. "To be able to handle that type of adversity and to be an athlete and have your feet taken away from you is tough. That is a very difficult process to go through. I'm really proud of how he has handled that situation."
The Total Package
When Chapman High School head coach Mark Hodge first saw Deebo Samuel, the lanky sophomore was playing basketball for the Panthers.
"I thought he competed at a level greater than the rest of his teammates," Hodge said. "Then we went through spring practice and summer seven-on-sevens and I realized he was pretty good."
It didn't take long for Samuel to confirm his football coach's assessment. As a junior and senior at Chapman, Samuel scored a school-record 53 touchdowns, including 36 receiving. After packing on about 20 pounds of muscle as a junior, he scored 30 touchdowns as a senior — 15 receiving, 13 rushing and two on pass interceptions — to earn Class AAA Offensive Player of the Year.
Hodge says he has coached about 40 players who have played college football, including 15 who played in the SEC or ACC. He says Samuel "caught my eye as having some of those physical and intangible gifts."
"All things put together, he’s the best I’ve ever coached. That’s size, strength, speed, agility, quickness. He’s the total package."
Samuel quickly flashed his explosiveness and versatility at South Carolina. He started the season-opener against North Carolina as a redshirt freshman and caught passes against Kentucky and Georgia before suffering a hamstring injury that cost him the next seven games. After returning, he broke out in the season finale against Clemson, catching five passes for 104 yards and his first career touchdown.
As a sophomore, he emerged as one of the top all-purpose players in the SEC. Despite missing three more games to injury, he led the Gamecocks with 783 yards receiving and scored in every way imaginable. He had just one receiving TD but scored six rushing touchdowns on just 15 carries. He also had his first career kickoff return for a touchdown and even threw a 33-yard TD pass. His biggest game came in the Birmingham Bowl when he set a bowl record with 14 receptions for 190 yards. After the season, he shared co-MVP honors with Bentley as the Gamecocks rallied to finish 6-7 in Muschamp's first season.
When he carried that success into last season, exploding onto the national scene in the first three games, it looked like South Carolina might have one of the most explosive offenses in the country with Bentley, Samuel, NFL-bound tight end Hayden Hurst and a solid running game.
But when Samuel went down, the Gamecock offense sputtered. They lost the Kentucky game 23-13 and then needed a last-second field goal to beat Louisiana Tech 17-16. A 24-17 loss at Texas A&M the following week dropped the team to 3-2.
Though they won six of their final eight games to finish 9-4, the offense struggled all season without Samuel, finishing 12th in the SEC in both scoring and total offense.
"You’ve got a guy like that, who can change a game in one play, for him to not be out there, I think it took a toll on us a little bit," Bentley said.
With Samuel back, the confidence of the offense is soaring again. Bryan McClendon, the team's wide receivers coach, took over the offense prior to last year's Outback Bowl and implemented a new, up-tempo offense. It paid immediate dividends as the Gamecocks rallied to score 23 unanswered points to beat Michigan 26-19 on New Year's Day. The game-winner was a 53-yard bomb to Shi Smith, who filled Samuel's spot as a true freshman.
With Samuel returning along with veteran receiver Bryan Edwards (nine career touchdowns) and sophomores Shi and OrTre Smith, McClendon, the new offensive coordinator, wants to be aggressive with his play-calling, spreading the ball around and taking more shots down the field. And the new fast-paced attack plays right into the hands of his best offensive weapon.
"Any time you get a guy who can score from any part of the field, that helps you," McClendon said. "Obviously, he's one of those guys who can do that. Getting him back and being able to do different things with him and his skill set helps out a bunch."
“He’s a guy that you can throw it five yards to him and he’ll get 90 for a touchdown,” Bentley said. “Just having him out there, we’re going to find all kinds of ways to get the ball in his hands and just let him make plays."
Asked prior to training camp what he expects from Samuel, Muschamp said, "a bunch of good plays."
When Samuel arrived in Atlanta for SEC Media Days in July, he was wearing a flashy white suit and flashing a big smile. He declared himself healthy and ready to go and his eyes lit him when asked about all the different ways his coaches and teammates might get him the ball.
"I don't know what all they got planned but I am ready to go," he said.
He is particularly excited about getting his hands on another kickoff. He has already set the school record with three kickoff returns for touchdowns and hopes to add to that mark this season. He and his coaches are unfazed by the new NCAA rule that allows teams to fair-catch kickoffs.
"I don't think we are going to be fair-catching any kick returns," Samuel said. "I'm very excited. That's probably one of the best things that I do."
A preseason All-American at both receiver and as a return man, Samuel should thrive in the new offense. And if he gets off to another fast start, he could enter the Heisman conversation again this season.
But after what he went through last year, he has a more simple goal this season.
"I just pray that God keeps me healthy this whole season and whatever happens happens," he said. "The only goal I set for myself is just to stay healthy."
— Josh Hyber contributed to this story.