Spring checkup: South Carolina's receivers showing progress
South Carolina’s young and mostly unproven wide receivers showed, at least on one sunny springtime Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium, that maybe Gamecock fans don’t have as much to worry about as previously thought.
The performances were solid. The reviews were good. And maybe, for now, the worrying about who Brandon McIlwain or whoever wins the quarterback job will be throwing the ball to this fall can die down a bit.
For the record, the Black defeated the Garnet 35-14 in front of 32,916 fans on April 9 in Columbia, in the first real organized example of what the Gamecocks look like under first-year coach Will Muschamp.
The former Florida coach, in his second head coaching go-around in the SEC, saw 17 players catch a pass, as the wealth was spread in a healthy manner by his quarterbacks all afternoon.
In his “thumbs up, thumbs down” review of the Black-Garnet tussle, The State’s Ben Breiner reserved one one of his “thumbs up” for South Carolina’s “young receivers.” In Hollywood as in Columbia, S.C., good reviews are never a bad thing, particularly at a position that was thought to be a concern coming into the spring.
“Youth will be an overriding theme for Gamecocks pass catchers, and the new guys did pretty well,” Breiner wrote after the game. “Early enrollee Bryan Edwards had a couple nice plays, including a pair of scoring receptions. Ex-cornerback/running back Jamari Smith made some eye-catching plays on the way to 54 yards, and walk-on Javon Charleston performed well.”
The future is HERE! #SpursUp
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) April 9, 2016
Breiner’s nod to the Gamecocks’ youth on the outside was second on his “thumbs up” list, only behind the strong debut of McIlwain, the freshman early enrollee.
Charleston wasn’t getting ahead of himself after one spring afternoon, but he was optimistic about the progress the offense has made and how that could re-shape what happens this fall.
“I think on offense, specifically wide receivers, we worked on tempo. In the beginning of the spring we had a lot of mistakes, but towards the end we picked up the tempo well. Guys were catching the ball well, and quarterbacks were going along with their reads. We just have to continue to get better individually, and when we come together if everyone has done their assignments we will be good as a team,” the 6-1, 178-pound redshirt freshman told gamecocksonline.com after the game.
Compare the positive vibe for the Gamecocks’ wideouts coming out of the spring game with what ESPN.com’s Edward Aschoff wrote in his “three things to watch” going into the showcase. Second on his list: “What will the secondary and receivers look like?”
“As the quarterback competition inches closer to a conclusion, who knows what the guys catching the ball or trying to defend the ball will look like? There isn’t much proven talent coming back at receiver,” Aschoff wrote. “Deebo Samuel has a lot of upside with his size and athleticism, but he caught just 12 passes last season.”
Aschoff went on, and justifiably so, about South Carolina’s perceived lack of depth, about the Gamecocks hardly returning any wide receiver production from last season, and about how the freshman Edwards could “really be a star, but he just needs time in (Kurt) Roper’s offense. But fans want to see him really take off in live situations, so all eyes will be on Edwards, who fans also hope creates even more chemistry with McIlwain.”
Well, the early returns for Samuel and Edwards were just fine, as the Gamecocks got their first organized taste of Roper, the first-year co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach who worked under Muschamp at Florida, then spent last year as a senior offensive assistant coach with the Cleveland Browns.
“Receivers Deebo Samuel and Jamari Smith also shined Saturday,” wrote Bleacher Report’s Brian Marron, adding them to his list of positives next to McIlwain. “Samuel was all over the field and completed a wide receiver pass in the first half. Smith made plays from the slot and finished with a touchdown.”
The 6-foot, 202-pound Samuel only caught 12 passes last season as a freshman, but already in the spring game the presence of the converted cornerback and running back Smith showed that Samuel’s numbers could increase this fall.
Marron named Smith his “breakout performer” in the spring game, a really good sign as the Gamecocks try to replace departed standout Pharoh Cooper.
“Outside of Samuel, there was a lot uncertainty in the Gamecocks’ receiving group. The coaches should be able to breathe a little easier after today,” Marron wrote in Bleacher Report after the spring game. “Smith, who was listed as a cornerback last season and worked as a running back for much of the spring, worked out of the slot and made plays all afternoon. He consistently got open over the middle, and he finished the day with a touchdown.”
Devin Dingle also stood out, catching two passes for 77 yards, but the redshirt freshman is also yet another potential Gamecock weapon who is young, and Dingle is a smaller target at 5-10, 155 pounds. But he was also responsible for the longest two plays from scrimmage in the spring game, a 42-yard catch and a 35-yard grab.
Charleston and Smith finished with 54 yards receiving, and Smith had a team-high six catches. Charleston and Samuel were up front and also upbeat after a long spring afternoon that showed South Carolina might not be so short on wide receiver talent.
Samuel’s efforts earned him the Steve Spurrier Offensive Player of the Spring award from Muschamp and his staff. They hope their young receivers can help as much when the lights are really on this fall as they did on a soft spring Saturday in early April.
“Last year, I was hurt, so I was dealing with adversity, trying to get back,” the redshirt sophomore Samuel told The State. “I came back the last two games, did pretty well. So I’m coming into this season, trying to push myself harder.”
Samuel hopes he can develop into the Gamecocks’ No. 1 receiving threat, replacing the dynamic Cooper. Muschamp, Roper and the Gamecocks’ staff can only hope Samuel has plenty of help come this fall.
The spring game was a sign he just might.