South Carolina wide receiver Deebo Samuel gave almost a quizzical look when he was asked.
No, there’s been no discussion about moving any of South Carolina’s receivers inside to the slot.
This is notable only because South Carolina, at this juncture, hardly plays any wide receivers in the slot at all. That inside spot from which Pharoh Cooper tormented defenses has been filled almost entirely by tight ends.
And this highlights the simple reality: South Carolina has gone through the first half of the 2016 season entirely undermanned at wide receiver.
The top targets have been hurt. The backups have been mostly true freshmen who arrived during the summer. The projected slot receiver barely played after the season’s first two quarters, and South Carolina is, at this point, almost exclusively a two-tight end offense (how intentional that is remains unclear).
Here’s the rundown of USC’s receivers who have played:
▪ Deebo Samuel: The player Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp called one of the most indispensable on the roster missed three games of six and was hobbled most of a fourth.
▪ Bryan Edwards: A true freshman who showed promise, he was forced into a No. 1 role and battled his own injury issues, missing one game.
▪ Terry Googer: A junior catching 46.2 percent of the balls thrown his way
▪ Randrecous Davis: A true freshman pushed into starting by circumstances, now injured.
▪ Chavis Dawkins: A true freshman pushed into starting by circumstances.
▪ Jamari Smith: A preseason starter who dropped several passes in the opener and has almost exclusively been used as a run threat since.
▪ Javon Charleston: A walk-on who was moved from safety.
▪ Korey Banks: A true freshman who played a few snaps when Edwards and Samuel were hurt.
So that’s all four scholarship true freshmen playing, outnumbering the non-freshman scholarship players who’ve seen the field. The top two options have missed time, as has the third or fourth option.
The players, for their part, brushed off any questions about playing with a group so limited in experienced bodies.
“Everyone gets in, they’re very confident,” Googer said. “They put us in situations (in practice) where it’s going to happen in a game.”
Quarterback Perry Orth said it doesn’t matter who is running routes to him, as long as he makes his reads. But he had to admit, youth brings with it growing pains.
“We have so many young guys that haven’t played and that are still learning how to play,” Orth said. “It’s challenging at first.”
The coaching staff has shown where things are at receiver by almost never playing a third wide receiver at all. Instead, tight ends Jacob August, Hayden Hurst and especially K.C. Crosby have seen most of the work in the slot, meaning less speed on the field.
Muschamp said playing a second tight end allows the team to do some different things from a blocking front, but if history is any indication, it’s unlikely this comes from anything but necessity.
The 2014 Florida Gators had a mess of a passing game, but Muschamp and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper had slot receivers start 10 of 12 games.
Going back to Roper’s time at Duke, Jamison Crowder was a star in the slot, and before that Donovan Varner was a productive option.
The coaches even listed a slot receiver on the depth chart throughout the offseason and talked about it as if it would be part of the offense.
This is where USC is at the moment, unable to field a true three-receiver set and burning every redshirt available to have enough bodies at the position. Mix that with an unsettled quarterback spot, and it would be a surprise if the passing game did anything but struggle.
The only thing the Gamecocks can do is play the guys they have and hope the top ones can stay on the field. Perhaps the young receivers learning to play under fire will help down the road, and even if the quarterback can empathize with their challenging situation, their teammates still have faith.
“They’re very talented,” Googer said. “Everyone is capable of playing right now. Everyone that’s got in has proved that they’re able to play at this level. If they get in, I’m confident in them.”