Pharoh Cooper. Alshon Jeffery. Kenny McKlinley. Sidney Rice. Troy Williamson. Sterling Sharpe.
That is a fine list of wide receivers who’ve come through Columbia and moved on to the NFL. You don’t hear the South Carolina Gamecocks mentioned in the “Wide Reciever U” conversation, that’s normally reserved for LSU, Miami, Michigan and even more recently here Clemson.
Part of the problem may be throughout history most of the great South Carolina receivers have been paired with relatively sub-par quarterback play. Connor Shaw was arguably the best QB in school history and for his two year prime he was throwing to a bunch of — albeit talented — munchkins like Bruce Ellington and Ace Sanders.
Jeffery caught balls from Stephen Garcia, who would range from 17-of-20 passing and three TD’s against No. 1 Alabama to 20-of-32 with two interceptions against Kentucky the following week. Whereas in the mid-2000s the likes of McKinley, Rice and Williamson toiled with mediocre passers like Dondrial Pinkins, Blake Mitchell and Chris Smelley.
Even as much as Todd Ellis is revered for the number of games he won as a starer, the dude was an interception slot machine with Sharpe as his No. 1 target. On the other hand, the better quarterbacks in Gamecock history like Steve Taneyhill never had great targets — Taneyhill’s junior year his leading receiver was running back Brandon Bennett.
It’s safe to say throughout school history good quarterbacks and good receivers have never been able to quite match up — until now that is.
Even in the face of Will Muschamp as head coach and a seemingly tougher SEC East, South Carolina fans can be deservedly excited about their offense in 2017 — specifically the passing game. We’ve already discussed Jake Bentley and the potential he possesses in his sophomore season, but now we have to talk about the group he’ll be throwing to.
If you’re at Wal-Mart, Barnes and Noble or wherever else you can pick up a preseason college football magazine, read up because they’re all saying the same thing: watch out for the South Carolina receiving corps. Athlon in particular has the Gamecocks WR/TE unit ranked sixth in the country. Sixth! Better than Alabama, Washington and Southern Cal.
That sounds crazy, until you really zoom in and take a gander at what kind of talent the Gamecocks return in the passing game. First and foremost let’s start with the tight ends, because this group is what makes South Carolina particularly dangerous in the throw game.
Hayden Hurst has the Rob Gronkowski like ability at six-foot-five, 250 pounds to present a match up nightmare for defenses: Too big and strong for defensive backs and just quick and shifty enough for maneuver in space against linebackers. He gives South Carolina a unique receiving option most teams don’t have.
A tight end of Hurst’s size can attack the middle of the field and have the same affect a rim-running center has on an NBA offense. The defense will have to suck itself inward against Hurst to clog his route, but that leaves the outside of the numbers open for Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards — who we’ll talk about later.
But the adverse affects the space Hurst can get as well. Check out this clip against Florida from 2016. Yes, this was not South Carolina’s best offensive performance but this play exhibits what Hurst is capable of.
Deebo Samuel and Hurst are lined up at the bottom of the screen. Samuel runs five yards in and stops, sucking in the outside linebacker and safety to cover. This leaves Hurst wide open in the slot to run a free seam up the middle with only the corner who was dropping into zone to try and get in front of the pass.
But Hurst’s unique size and speed allows him to pull away from the corner for a big gain before shrugging off the deep safety and dragging the same corner for a big gain. The respect defenders have to pay to the speedy Samuel gives Hurst a big opening up the seam for an explosive play.
But most tight ends can run that seam effectively. It’s Hurst’s athleticism that makes him so unique to the offense. Watch this play against Kentucky where Hurst is lined up as the split end near the top of the screen:
South Carolina essentially runs a wide receiver screen for their big tight end. Hurst is able to maneuver himself through congested traffic, break tackles and outrun defenders to the sideline for a big gain. There aren’t a lot of tight ends in the country who are capable of this kind of play making.
But Hurst isn’t the only match up nightmare South Carolina has at tight end. At six-foot-six, 248 pounds Jacob August can attack the seam with the same effectiveness as Hurst does. Here’s another clip from the Kentucky game where August’s big frame can erase an errant throw by Brandon McIlwain.
South Carolina has the option of playing one of the other of Hurst and August — or both in some situations. Add in depth like KC Crosby and Keil Pollard, and there’s a bevy of pass catching weapons just from the tight end spot alone.
We haven’t even cracked a whip at the actual wide receivers yet.
So let’s not make haste to the top two leading wide receivers on South Carolina’s roster: Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards. The two compliment each other like salt and pepper — Edwards is big bodied, strong and can get high passes unlike guys the size of Samuel who’s shift, fast and can be used as a versatile weapon in the backfield and the return game.
First and foremost let’s look at Edwards. He had a splashy debut against Vanderbilt where he caught eight passes for 101 yards, including this great grab to convert a third-and-seven for an eventual win. Even though he never topped 71 yards in a game after that, it didn’t stop Edwards from performing acrobatic catches for the rest of the season.
Pause the clip at four seconds to see just how high off the ground Edwards gets to make this catch. Not only does Edwards jump through the stratosphere, but the ability to adjust his body to the ball and make the catch on his back shoulder is something NFL receivers have a hard time doing.
And that’s no ordinary corner Edwards is making that catch over. That’s second-round NFL Draft pick Teez Tabor Edwards is leaping over to make that catch — as a FRESHMAN. But Edwards isn’t just a big bodied bully. He’s got the speed to match his size, as seen here against East Carolina where he can go one-on-one with a corner down the sideline to beat coverage in a pure foot race.
Edwards showed brilliant flashes as a freshman, and if he can pull off something similar as a sophomore he may only be a Gamecock until 2018. But that’s a different story for a different day, let’s shift gears and look at what makes Deebo Samuel so dangerous as an offensive threat.
Samuel is a three-pronged weapon: he can catch, run and return kicks. His speed, shiftiness and vision allows Samuel to be a threat in all three facets. For starters, watch him take this kickoff to the house against Western Carolina:
Samuel finds a seam, doesn’t deviate from it and hits full speed through two arm tackles. Granted, Western Carolina isn’t a staunch opponent but you have to admire the speed Samuel has to pull away from every player on the field and score in this play. Forget this was against an FCS opponent, that kind of speed would break away from any D-1 team with a hole that big.
That same speed benefits him on jet sweep hand-offs and end-around runs. His speed gives South Carolina a threat on the perimeter outside of the running backs like AJ Turner and Rico Dowdle. Samuel’s used this speed to score fly sweeps on multiple occasions, in the first game of the season and the last game of the season.
In both plays Samuel exhibits his ability to maneuver through blockers and use his speed to score at the pylon. It’s a marquee goal line play for this offense and fans can expect more of it come 2017. But let’s not forget where Samuel makes his bread: catching the football.
On top of all of his speed and shiftiness, Samuel can catch the ball as well as any receiver in the SEC. Check out this grab against Tennessee where the smaller Samuel fights through pass interference to make a tough grab against pass interference:
With one hand Samuel adjusts to the ball and makes a huge catch to set up the opening score for an upset win against Tennessee. The lightning to Edwards’ Thunder, Samuel can make a perfect compliment to his mate on the other side of the field.
Add in talented true freshman like OrTre Smith and Shi Smith, combined with some veterans like Terry Googer and Chavis Dawkins, and you’ve got one heck of a receiving corps for Jake Bentley come this fall.
Former NFL head coach Brian Billick has a saying where he compares his receiving corps to a basketball team. He means that he wants all of the bodies on his team to be of different sizes and skill sets, such as a point guard will be different than a center.
If you wanted to make a starting five out of South Carolina receiving group, a front court of KC Crosby, Jacob August and Hayden Hurst with a back court of Bryan Edwards and Deebo Samuel would be a good place to start. Add in Bentley as a seemingly good quarterback, and South Carolina has the makings of something special on offense for 2017.