Stephon Gilmore, 2008.
Marcus Lattimore, 2009.
Jadeveon Clowney, 2010.
Three consecutive South Carolina Mr. Football award winners looked off a sea of powerhouse offers to play at the University of South Carolina. Each of these players made good on their hype, enjoying banner careers in Columbia. Only Lattimore, because of his injuries, would fall out of the first round of the NFL Draft. Had he made it through his collegiate career unscathed, he very well may have joined Gilmore and Clowney as a top ten pick.
This wave that led South Carolina’s best high school prospects to Columbia (and in turn shifted the national perception of South Carolina football) hadn’t subsided in 2011. Another blue chip prospect was lighting up state high school stadiums and had named South Carolina his lead school. When the Gamecocks signed their fourth consecutive South Carolina Mr. Football in February 2012, the expectations were high and rising.
Shaq Roland was rated the 40th-best high school prospect in 2012, according to 247Sports’ industry composite. The Lexington native was courted by all the traditional powers—Alabama, LSU, Georgia, among many others—but he elected to follow his predecessors to Columbia. Roland committed some seven months before signing day and held firm. His senior statistics were garish. He shined at the Shrine Bowl.
Two weeks later, on January 1, 2012, Alshon Jeffery positioned himself under a Hail Mary in the closing seconds of the first half of the Capitol One Bowl. He made the catch in traffic, turned, and leaped into the endzone. It was Jeffery’s final touchdown as a Gamecock. Following the game, he declared for the NFL draft, joining Sidney Rice and Kenny McKinley in the pantheon of Spurrier era mega-receivers who’d played their way into the pros.
The timing felt perfect. Just as Alshon Jeffery departs, a new sensation arrives. Shaq Roland would hit campus, play his three years, break a record or two, and move into the professional ranks. He’d be the next in the line of lanky circus-catchers to come out of Columbia.
The major story entering 2012 wasn’t the Gamecocks’ new receiving threat, but the two Mr. Football titleists that preceded him. Marcus Lattimore was back from the ACL tear that cut his 2011 campaign short. Jadeveon Clowney was about to set the SEC ablaze with a season’s worth of carnage, including one particular play that would receive worldwide attention. Storylines abounded, and the fact that the reigning South Carolina Mr. Football was making his debut was not above-the-fold news illustrated how far Gamecock football had come.
Roland flew under the radar until week three against UAB, when sophomore Dylan Thompson connected with the freshman receiver on a post route.
Shaq Roland was on the board. But it would be his biggest splash that year.
He finished the season with just five catches for 80 yards—good for 11th-most on the team. An undersized albeit talented receiving corps complemented by bulky tight ends overshadowed Roland, who caught just two passes in the season’s final ten games. An 11-2 record obscured, if not assuaged, fans’ concerns over Roland’s lack of production. After all, not every freshman can be all-conference.
Leading into the 2013 season, various outlets tabbed Roland as a potential breakout star. And why not? So much raw talent, plus a year of experience, and a senior quarterback. The stars were aligning, and the Shaq Roland era—a year delayed—was nigh.
On the third play of the 2013 season, Connor Shaw found Shaq Roland for a 65 yard touchdown strike. While he finished the North Carolina game with just one more catch, the hope was that Shaq Roland had arrived. Unfortunately, Roland would amass just 90 receiving yards and no touchdowns over the next seven games. A major reason for the lack of output? He missed a three game stretch due to suspension.
Shortly before kickoff against Central Florida, it was announced that Shaq Roland had been suspended for a violation of university policy. While never confirmed by the university, it was reported that the reason was the unauthorized use of Adderall. The Gamecocks went 3-0 in the games Roland missed: narrow defeats of Central Florida and Kentucky, and a blowout of Arkansas. Upon his return, Roland struggled to find a niche in the offense, posting a single catch for four yards in games against Tennessee and Missouri. Fans were growing restless with regards to the young receiver, who was potentially halfway through his career with little to show for it.
Then, Shaq hit his stride. It was homecoming, South Carolina’s first game at Williams-Brice in almost a month. The Gamecocks would trounce the Dak Prescott-led Mississippi State Bulldogs 34-16, a game in which Roland caught two touchdown passes. After a lackluster game against Florida, Roland put up 72 and 40 yards respectively against Coastal Carolina and Clemson, scoring in each contest. The numbers weren’t earth-shattering, but Roland was back on the offensive map.
Two years to the day after Alshon Jeffery made his career-capping Hail Mary catch in Orlando, Shaq Roland took the same field played the best game as a Gamecock. Roland caught six passes for 112 yards, included a heavily-contested jumpball and an acrobatic sideline snag. His heroics combined with those of Bruce Ellington for a thrilling Capitol One Bowl win over Wisconsin.
Roland’s 2013 had started and ended with a bang, but again he was overshadowed—this time by Bruce Ellington, who would turn professional and be taken in the 4th round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Bruce was gone, and after that performance in the Capitol One Bowl, fans were convinced that Roland had, at long last, arrived.
And while he no-showed in the Texas A&M debacle, Roland excelled early in 2014. Seven receptions for 94 yards against East Carolina. Four receptions for 47 yards and a touchdown against Georgia. Just two receptions against Vanderbilt, but he did catch a touchdown. If fans had by now come to terms with the reality of Shaq Roland not matching the ceiling of Jeffery, McKinely or Rice, they were at least happy to see him steadily contributing. Besides, another receiving threat had emerged: Pharoh Cooper, who seemed to have stepped into the all-purpose role Bruce Ellington abdicated.
When the Gamecocks slipped into their dismal mid-season stretch, however, so seemed to go Shaq. After catching just one ball for four yards against Missouri, he missed the team flight to Lexington and, in turn, the game against Kentucky. It was a baffling lapse in responsibility for a player with realistic NFL aspirations who was well into his third season. He atoned, somewhat, by catching a touchdown in each of the next two games (a win over Furman, a loss to Auburn) but for the second consecutive year was nowhere to be found when the Gamecocks lost to Tennessee. A pair of catches against Florida were overshadowed by a fumble and an overt lack of effort in blocking situations—he was benched the following week against South Alabama.
He’d be back in the lineup against Clemson. He caught two balls on South Carolina’s second drive of the game. In the third quarter, on second down and 12 at the Clemson 45 yard line, Pharoh Cooper took the direct snap and completed a seven yard pass to Roland. It would be his final catch as a Gamecock.
Five plays later, the drive would end in a missed field goal.
A little more than three weeks later, it was announced that Shaq Roland had left the team and would not play in the Independence Bowl. Why Roland left prior to the bowl game wasn’t made public ("That was his choice," said Steve Spurrier) and this piece will not speculate as to the "why" and the "what went wrong" in this scenario. All indications are that the junior won’t be back in 2015 and intends to enter the NFL Draft. His draft value is unclear (at least one entity thinks he’s the year’s twentieth-best receiving prospect) but one would assume he’ll enter the evaluation cycle under the damning shadow of oft-unwarranted "character flaw" red flags.
Roland may make an NFL roster. Surely players with transgressions far more serious and physical tools far less impressive have made teams and been difference-makers. It’s not out of the question that Shaq Roland lands on his feet.
Regardless of his prospects at this next level, we do have the full sum of information on his career at South Carolina. Roland finished his career with 56 receptions, 891 yards, and 10 touchdowns. Only that last statistic ranks among the top 20 players in program history.
Not all four star recruits pan out, but the Shaq Roland experience is especially deflating because his narrative felt prewritten. He was supposed to be the next proud South Carolina Mr. Football to thrive in garnet. He was supposed to be the next great receiver to conquer Columbia. Roland was neither of those things, and while he had his thrilling moments and awesome flashes, they were simply too few and far between.
None of that can change, but the book isn’t closed on Shaq Roland. It’s up to him to write the ending.