Shaq Roland’s transformation from high school superstar to college contributor didn’t exactly happen overnight.
The electrifying player who could do no wrong on the football field at Lexington High discovered in his freshman season at South Carolina that he could do little right as a backup wide receiver. He finished that season with five catches in his 11 games, none of which he started.
But it didn’t take too long for him to find his rhythm last season. He caught a 65-yard touchdown pass on the third play from scrimmage against North Carolina in the opening win and ended with six receptions for 112 yards in the Capital One Bowl victory over Wisconsin.
“Coming in, I had a lot of hype surrounding me. Some people might have thought it got to my head a bit,” Roland said. “But each year I’ve gotten better mentally and physically. I’ve learned each year how to read coverages. I know the playbook like the back of my head. That really gives you the confidence. When you know what you’re doing, it means you can play to the best of your ability.”
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Wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. watched as the gifted 6-foot-1, 176-pound Roland struggled to adjust against top-level SEC competition after he was basically unstoppable as the state’s Mr. Football at Lexington.
“He has come a long way. When he first got here, I think he was a little arrogant,” Spurrier Jr. said. “He was used to being a little more talented than most people. He bumped heads with some physical guys, and it took him a few weeks to really gather what Division I football really is.”
Last season brought a number of highlights that included two touchdown receptions in the win over Mississippi State, four catches and a touchdown in the blowout of Coastal Carolina, and three more receptions, including a notable 9-yard touchdown catch, in the win over Clemson.
Roland finished with 25 receptions for 455 yards, an 18.2-yard average and five scores. He credited the season to getting ahead of the learning curve.
“In high school, they’d tell me to run a go-route and I’d run a go-route. But now, you’ve got to know how to run it,” he said. “You’ve got to know how to get open. You’ve got to know where the quarterback is going to throw it. You’ve got to have the timing. There’s just a lot to know, and coming in I didn’t know that.”
Spurrier Jr. said Roland figured out that he wasn’t necessarily better than everybody else.
“He just had to learn how to be the best he could possibly be, and it took him a while to learn that,” Spurrier Jr. said.
Roland’s sophomore season wasn’t entirely smooth sailing, however. He was suspended for three games in the middle of the year for an unspecified violation of team rules. He said it served as a wakeup call.
“Everybody goes through adversity in life. I think that was good for me just to get my head on straight,” Roland said. “I can’t do whatever I was doing. I turned a negative into a positive, and going into this season, it will help me a lot by making me stay focused.”
Spurrier Jr. has noticed a big difference in the junior’s maturity and how he’s approaching his business in a more serious fashion. Noting that a lot of receivers who come out of high school don’t have a great work ethic in the weight room, Spurrier Jr. likes how Roland has developed one.
“His personality and attitude this off-season has really changed in the weight room. I’ve been impressed with that,” Spurrier Jr. said.
Senior quarterback Dylan Thompson also has come away impressed with Roland during the early practices as he spoke of his receiver’s talent starting to break out. Yet Roland insists that he can’t do it by himself at the position, especially with teammates such as Damiere Byrd, Nick Jones and Pharoh Cooper also catching passes.
“All of our receivers have got the potential to be great,” he said. “Dylan can get any one of our receivers the ball, and it really doesn’t matter who gets the ball. The receivers have an unselfish mindset, and we just want to win.”
Roland declines to discuss any numerical goals that he might have as a pass-catcher because he doesn’t want to be distracted from the team’s goal of winning as many games as possible.
“We want to win the SEC championship, to be honest,” he added. “Eleven wins, three years, we want to get over the hump, and I think we’ve got the team to do it if everything goes right.”