South Carolina wide receiver Tyshun Samuel doesn’t back down from anyone.
It’s a trait his father noticed when he was a little boy. So he gave Samuel the nickname “Deebo” after the bully in the movie “Friday.”
It’s a trait his high school coach, Mark Hodge, witnessed on several occasions throughout Samuel’s career at Chapman.
Samuel stands out athletically in just about any setting, whether he’s racing by defenders on the USC practice field, or playing pick-up basketball with teammates on campus.
But the speedy, shifty wideout takes his game to another level when tested.
“He has an emotional response where if you tap into that and make it personal, you’re really going to see that top-end ability,” Hodge said. “The best players I’ve ever seen you don’t want to challenge them, because when you do challenge them, you get a whole other level.”
South Carolina fans saw a hint when the Gamecocks hosted Clemson last year. The No. 1 Tigers arrived at Williams-Brice Stadium as three-touchdown favorites and with a top-10 defense.
Samuel, who didn’t start the previous eight games because of a hamstring injury, had a career day against the vaunted Clemson secondary Samuel caught five passes for 104 yards and a touchdown despite playing at less than 100 percent.
“If you watch him physically throughout that game, just blocking and everything else, he was still limited by his hamstring,” Hodge said. “But you saw a little bit of that personal edge he can bring to a ballgame. When that’s the case, there aren’t going to be many people that can go with him.”
Samuel said over the summer that game was a big one for him.
“I was anxious to play the No. 1 team in the country, and Clemson is also an in-state rival,” he said at SEC Football Media Days. “I was trying to make a name for myself in that game, so after that game I thought that happened.”
Samuel’s hoping to make an even bigger name for himself in 2016. While he shined against Clemson, he was limited by injuries most of his redshirt freshman season and finished with 12 catches for 161 yards in five games.
His high school position coach and friend, Steven Fusaro, spoke with Samuel often throughout the trying year and could tell he was frustrated.
“The biggest thing he felt was not ‘Poor pitiful me,’ but he felt like he let his teammates down,” Fusaro said. “To me, that is the greatest quality about him, is his heart and character and how much he cares about others.”
Samuel appears primed to have a monster sophomore season, if he can stay healthy. Hodge said he believes USC’s 3-9 season would have looked a lot different with Samuel playing at 100 percent.
“I hate it for that team, because if he would’ve been healthy, that would’ve taken a lot of pressure off Pharoh (Cooper) and really opened up a lot of other things,” he said.
Samuel was impressive in spring practice and fall camp, and will be the No. 1 target for whoever wins the starting quarterback job.
“When he’s been able to stay healthy, he’s been a very productive player for us. For us to play well offensively, he needs to have a good year,” USC coach Will Muschamp said. “He’s a guy that really caught my eye in the offseason, how he works and how he went about his business.”
Hodge has coached high school football for nearly 20 years, with stops at Broome, Spartanburg and Carolina High before arriving at Chapman. He’s witnessed a handful of players who have gone on to play in the NFL, and said Samuel has the potential to be as good as any of them.
“The only person I’ve been on a field with that I can compare him to is Roscoe Crosby. Roscoe was a little taller, but the dynamics Roscoe brought, Deebo brings,” Hodge said.
“Watching him practice and doing this as long as I have and coaching the type of players that I have and have coached against, I thought he was the best player on the team last year. You take Pharoh Cooper and all that he brought to that football team, Deebo’s got one more gear. He’s got that plus a little bit more. I could be wrong in the end, but he’s that special.”
Samuel has the potential to be a star, but growing up he was viewed as more of a basketball player. So much so that he was ready to give up football at the end of his freshman year.
“We had to make him play football as a freshman. He literally wanted to bail out the last two weeks of football because he was afraid he was going to get hurt.” Chapman athletics director and basketball coach Greg Wilson said. “We had to make him play football because basketball was always his love.”
Samuel was a solid football player as a freshman and sophomore, playing mostly defensive back for the Panthers. He went from solid to a star when Hodge took over the program and allowed Samuel to flourish on offense in addition to defense.
“His first couple of years at Chapman were typical. He played football and he did OK, but when they got a new coach up there, that’s when he took off,” his stepmom Precious Martin said. “When he got to Chapman, he started with Coach Hodge and no looking back. Something clicked with them and the rest is history.”
Hodge and Samuel got off to a rough start. In the summer prior to his junior year, Samuel arrived late to a seven-on-seven event. Hodge confronted Samuel, who snapped back at his new coach. That led to a not-so-friendly conversation.
“I went off on him and told him he could go back to Spartanburg if he wanted to, for all I cared,” Hodge recalled.
Luckily, for both parties, Samuel stayed.
As a junior, he caught 78 passes for 1,246 yards and 18 touchdowns and led the Panthers with four interceptions. His impressive year was highlighted by an incredible performance against rival Woodruff. Samuel caught eight passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns and hauled in the game-winning 2-point conversion in the final minutes.
Hodge knew he had something special.
“He was being him, but then somebody challenged him. They got in his face and took him to a level they shouldn’t have taken him to,” he said. “At that point in time, it was not only am I going to win, but I’m going to make sure you know I’m the best player on the field, where before all I was concerned about was winning.”
With a newfound confidence, Samuel excelled as a senior, when he was healthy. He battled injuries, but recovered in time to lead Chapman to the 3A Upper State title game.
The Panthers opened 5-0 before being decimated by injuries and dropping three straight games. At full strength, Chapman had to win its last two regular season games to sneak into the playoffs, then won three straight road playoff games to set up a showdown with Daniel to advance to the state championship.
Chapman blasted Wren and current Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant 35-7 as Samuel played mostly running back on offense and had 12 carries for 90 yards and two touchdowns while also playing defensive back.
“Everybody thought we were going to get beat. We’re over there catching punts on their sideline, and their student section is going crazy,” Fusaro said. “You turn around and Deebo is waving at them and smiling. He had this peace and calm about him that, ‘We’re going to shut you up.’ ”
The Panthers lost to Daniel in a nail-biter, but Samuel had nine catches for 257 yards and three touchdowns in the 29-27 loss.
The playoff run didn’t end with Samuel leading Chapman to a state title, but he did earn a scholarship from South Carolina after being lightly recruited.
Hodge pleaded with the Gamecocks and other Power Five programs to offer Samuel earlier, but interest was minimal until late in his senior year.
“We preached and preached and preached and preached to all of these recruiters and coaches about his ability, about his character, about his grades. … Just somehow he got on the radar late. I’m not sure why. I think some of it had to do with the fact that we’re Chapman,” Hodge said. “It was really frustrating. If he’d have had a Byrnes jersey on or Spartan High jersey on, he’d have had 100 offers. He was that good.”
My baby is so mature. He is like a man now. He’s a different person. Sometimes I’ll look and I’ll see his boyish smile and I’ll see the old Tyshun, but he’s just grown into a man. He’s matured and blossomed.
Precious Martin, Deebo Samuel’s stepmom
Even though Samuel had to be patient and wait for the Gamecocks to come calling, Martin believes her stepson ended up where he’s meant to be.
Samuel went through stretches of being homesick at USC and spent several weekends in Inman his freshman year, but has since bonded with teammates and built strong friendships.
“He adjusted early in his sophomore year and I think it’s a great fit for him. They really seem like they care about him,” Martin said. “They’re not just down there for him to play ball. They want to make sure that he’s getting what he needs.”
Martin has been a part of Samuel’s life since he was three, and Samuel moved in with Martin and his dad at the age of 13, transferring from Spartanburg to Chapman at the same time.
She’s amazed by the transformation Samuel has made over the past few years, both on and off the field.
“My baby is so mature. He is like a man now. He’s a different person,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll look and I’ll see his boyish smile and I’ll see the old Tyshun, but he’s just grown into a man. He’s matured and blossomed.”
One area Samuel is still working to improve on is dealing with the media. The attention he’s received, including at SEC Football Media Days, has been overwhelming at times.
“When he first started bursting onto the scene and everyone was putting cameras and cell phones and microphones in his face, he would freeze up,” Martin said. “He would say, ‘Mom I messed up,’ and I said, ‘No, you’ve just got to get used to it.’ I don’t know how I would react if people put all those cameras and microphones in my face, but he’s becoming more articulate. I can tell that he’s been groomed and formally educated.”
In addition to South Carolina, Martin credits Hodge and the rest of the Chapman coaching staff for helping Samuel turn into the humble, well-mannered man he is today. He’s far removed from being the player who snapped back at his high school coach entering his junior year.
“His relationship with Mark Hodge is a very special relationship. Coach Hodge really looks at him as if he was his own son. A lot of people say, ‘That’s like my son,’ or ‘That’s like my daughter,’ but I can really see the connection with them,” Martin said.
“Their relationship is awesome and he’ll do anything he can for him. Tyshun values that relationship. He respects him and respects his opinion and really wants to please him.”
Hodge insists there’s no doubt Samuel’s a part of his family.
“In my top drawer in my office I keep all my snacks. There’s three people that go in that drawer, my two sons and Deebo,” Hodge said. “That’s how he is. He’s like one of my kids. … He’s one of mine.”
Best of bunch
Deebo Samuel is USC’s leading returning receiver. A look at their catches in 2015: