Before the regulars made their mark, Shi Smith was the first South Carolina receiver to come alive Saturday in USC’s 37-14 win over Vanderbilt.
Deebo Samuel, as he usually does, did a little bit of everything with his 95 yards on nine touches. And Bryan Edwards, Samuel’s top sidekick, was again solid with three grabs for 47 yards. But Smith, the sophomore who can occasionally feel forgotten, was truly the Gamecocks’ spark at Vanderbilt Stadium.
Five minutes hadn’t passed in the second quarter and Smith already had a career-high for receiving yards. He finished with 119 and a touchdown on five catches.
Move over Samuel and Edwards, make room for Smith?
“I’m prepared,” Smith said when asked if he wants to share a spotlight with his more-known position mates. “I mean, I’ll do everything I need to do to be prepared for it. But I’m just going to stay humble and do what I need to do to do my job.”
Momentum for Saturday’s performance had been building since August. In preseason camp, USC quarterback Jake Bentley told reporters he sensed an definite advancement in Smith’s game.
“He’s made some plays where you just go ‘Wow, that’s a big-time play,’ ” Bentley said then of the former three-star recruit from Union, S.C.
Naturally, Bentley was hardly surprised by Saturday’s show. The two connected on the game’s third play from scrimmage — an easy 38-yard scoring strike to the right pylon.
“Day in and day out in practice, he brings the right mentality,” Bentley said of Smith. “He works hard every day. Watching the Georgia game, he got open a lot, so we knew he had the ability to get open a lot this game.
“It was a point of emphasis all week to get him the ball. We knew he had a chance to make explosive plays and that’s what he did.”
The Bentley-Smith duo nearly combined for another TD in the second quarter, but settled for a 52-yard gain after Smith was stopped at the Vandy 2-yard line. Of Bentley’s first six completions, four of them went to Smith.
Credit a chunk of that to favorable matchups, said Carolina coach Will Muschamp.
Smith often found himself in single coverage against a Vandy slot cornerback.
“(Smith’s) a really good player,” Muschamp said. “We felt really good about the matchup in the slot. We’ll feel good about that matchup a lot of weeks. He’s a good football player. We’ve got some weapons on offense, (but) we’ve got to continue to get him the ball.”
In two career games against Vandy, Smith has 10 receptions for 195 yards and two scores.
“I feel very confident,” Smith said. “We’ve been working every day in practice. (Bentley) told me it was going to happen, and we went out there and made the plays.”