What a game and what a start to the season for the South Carolina Gamecocks. More specifically, what a start for redshirt junior Deebo Samuel, who confirmed what South Carolina fans already knew for the rest of the country: He’s really good at football.
Over the past couple of years, Samuel has developed into a game-breaking, all-purpose talent in the mold of Bruce Ellington and Ace Sanders before him. He’s not the biggest guy on the field, nor is he some kind of athletic marvel. But he’s savvy and skilled and just makes magic happen.
Against the Wolfpack, Samuel returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, then added five catches for 83 yards and two more scores, one of which was a jaw-dropping, one-handed grab. Any time he touched the ball, good things followed. It’s hard to blame quarterback Jake Bentley for consistently scanning the field for No. 1.
...but, well, that’s kind of what I’m about to do. A couple of Bentley’s more ill-advised throws — including his interception — were passes he forced to Samuel, and more concerning, it seemed like the rest of the receiving corps was too quiet. Bryan Edwards did have 55 yards on five catches, and freshman Shi Smith showed some potential with three grabs for 23 yards. But it was a surprisingly limited and narrowly focused output.
That’s to say nothing of the tight ends, which are supposed to be one of the deepest position groups on the roster and led by preseason All-SEC selection Hayden Hurst. Hurst had one catch that lost two yards, and guys like K.C. Crosby and Jacob August didn’t see any meaningful action.
On one hand, if you must lock on to any player, you could certainly do a lot worse than zeroing in on a guy like Samuel. (Throughout Alshon Jeffery’s illustrious Gamecock career, for example, I don't think many fans worried too much whenever the ball was flung roughly in the same geographic area as Jeffery, and he routinely delivered on that faith.) But on the other, it reduces the offense to a one-trick pony, even if that pony is a very fun and exciting one — and it also hampers the development of talent elsewhere on the roster.
But a bigger concern than potential Deebo Samuel Tunnel Vision is the glaring absence of a running game. Aside from a couple of surprisingly effective Bentley scrambles on broken plays, Rico Dowdle owned the Gamecocks' longest rushing attempt of the game with seven (7) yards that he took into the end zone after an N.C. State turnover gave South Carolina a short field. In total, Dowdle compiled 27 yards on 12 carries, which averages out to a paltry 2.3 yards per carry; Samuel had a five-yard carry of his own (because of course, why not); and A.J. Turner had one for just a couple. (Heralded transfer Ty'Son Williams was left without a rushing attempt, though he did make a catch for five yards and some blocking appearances.)
In fairness, the reason for this could simply have been the needs of the game plan — which might also explain the absence of the tight ends in the receiving game. N.C. State, as it had been discussed over and over leading up to the season, boasts an excellent front seven and a particularly nasty front four. Establishing the run against a group like that would be difficult, especially for a team like South Carolina that has a young, still-developing backfield. It's not at all surprising the Gamecocks would choose to lean on the short passing game and keep the tight ends home as extra blockers to neutralize some of the Wolfpack’s advantages.
But 21 rushing attempts is still troubling, especially when South Carolina could've benefited from bleeding some clock with a two-score lead in the second half and instead went on a rash of three-and-outs that took, at most, only a couple minutes each. Dowdle did have two touches as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, hauling in the Gamecocks' first offensive touchdown on a rather adventurous wheel route and then taking a shovel pass for a nice gain. I would've liked seeing more of that creativity with the backs, since Dowdle and Turner have both shown they can move well in space, but those looks were surprisingly limited despite their success.
In any case, I'm not ready to mash the panic button on the offense yet. The season is only a week old, and as far as the running game goes, I'm willing to concede it just wasn’t viewed as a favorable matchup by the coaches. But I’m admittedly still hesitant when it comes to Kurt Roper’s approach, and I’m wanting to see a more varied playbook now that the Will Muschamp era is in Year 2. The offense is supposed to be the stronger or at least more complete unit on this team, and as such, I think fans and observers have been fair in expecting it to lead the charge for the Gamecocks and be critical to their success. Deebo Samuel is an absolutely electric player who looks to have a huge season ahead of him, but I’d like to see him get some more help moving forward.