When Deebo Samuel clocked in at 22 mph during a preseason practice, Will Muschamp knew his eyes weren’t lying to him.
South Carolina’s football coach believed his star senior wide receiver would be as good as new this season after missing 10 games last year because of a broken leg. The speed clocked by the team’s Catapult GPS system confirmed when Samuel matched the top speed he hit on the game field last year, which came during one of his two 97-yard kickoff returns for a touchdown.
“He looks good to me,” Muschamp said. “He looks powerful. He had some really nice runs after the catch today, ran through some tackles. I think he looks very explosive.”
Explosive is the best word for Samuel’s start to the 2017 season. He had 474 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns in 11 quarters before breaking his leg against Kentucky. Now, he’s set to return to the Gamecocks lineup when South Carolina opens the season against Coastal Carolina on Saturday at noon in Williams-Brice Stadium.
“Deebo is the same, hasn’t missed a stride,” junior wide receiver Bryan Edwards said. “Deebo is the same guy. He’s eager to play. He’s ready to go. It’s not just him. Everybody in our locker room is ready to play.”
But the expectations are higher for Samuel than for any other player who will run out of the locker room Saturday afternoon. South Carolina offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon urged Samuel in the offseason to remove himself from social media in order to separate himself from the hype surrounding his return.
“That’s why I deactivated my Twitter and my Facebook and didn’t get into all of that,” Samuel said. “I’m really ready to get back out there. It’s been 11 months, just excited to get back out there and play.”
Samuel has 86 catches for 1,194 yards and five touchdowns, 17 carries for 128 yards and seven touchdowns and 19 kickoff returns for 649 yards and three touchdowns in his career.
“He hasn’t lost a step,” tight end K.C. Crosby said. “He’s really anticipating the season, he’s ready to step back out there and show what he can do. It’s a big difference, because now you have to worry about him. You have to give him a little more attention, so it opens it up for other guys.”
Samuel was fully confident in his health only after getting tackled by safety Steven Montac during a preseason practice, he said.
“I think I have gotten stronger and faster because I got more time to develop this past summer,” Samuel said.
“There’s no timidness with him,” quarterback Jake Bentley confirmed. “He’s full go. He’s real explosive, looks like himself. I don’t see any issues in that regard. He’s been 100 percent helping us out.”
Samuel doesn’t feel any pressure to match his breakneck start from 2017, he said, but the Gamecocks coaches and teammates clearly are betting on the fact that Samuel’s return and the attention opponents pay to him will have a significant impact on South Carolina’s offensive fortunes this year.
“Anytime you get a guy who can score from any part of the field, I believe that helps you,” McClendon said. “He’s one of those guys who can do that and has done that in the past. Getting him back is a tremendous help, and being able to do different things with him helps out a bunch.”