Josh Kendall

The Connor Shaw Principle: Gamecocks in search of playmakers

Receiver Deebo Samuel
Receiver Deebo Samuel

After Mike Davis left South Carolina and began preparing for the NFL Draft, Steve Spurrier ran into one of Davis’ personal trainers who was lamenting Davis’ struggles in pass protection.

Thank goodness he did struggle, Spurrier thought. Two of Davis’ biggest plays in the 2014 season came after Davis failed to carry out his blocking assignment, Spurrier said. The first came against Florida, when Davis caught a 27-yard pass that sparked the game-tying drive. The next came against Miami and was a touchdown. Both times, Davis was supposed to pick up a blitzer rather than run a pass route.

“Was I supposed to say, ‘Mike, you were supposed to get that corner blitz,’?” Spurrier said. “I know you have to be smart back there for a running back, but sometimes you just can’t see them coming so, ‘Go out for a pass, catch it for a touchdown’ is a pretty good play.”

It’s one South Carolina’s coach hopes to see a lot this season from someone.

“Sometimes,” Spurrier said, “I think we all worry too much about being exact on everything instead of just letting your guys go play, play as smart as you can and maybe make some plays when your coaches don’t have the perfect play on.”

Call it the Connor Shaw Principle. Shaw became the school’s all-time winningest quarterback partly by finding first downs when they didn’t look readily available and otherwise making something from nothing offensively. The 2015 Gamecocks need playmakers in that mold even if it’s too much to ask them to fill those shoes entirely.

Where they are going to come from is the question. Junior wide receiver Pharoh Cooper, who had 1,242 all-purpose yards last year, is the only player on the current roster who has proven an ability to make plays offensively. Shamier Jeffery’s 9 receiving yards are the second-best among returning Gamecocks.

“Well, (freshman wide receiver Deebo Samuel) makes a good play every now and then and the running backs have been pretty good,” Spurrier said. “We’ll have to wait and see. Certainly, we’ve got to throw it at Carlton Heard and Deebo and see if they can make some plays out there. They’ll get their chance.”

In the running game, senior Brandon Wilds has promised some 70-yard touchdown runs this season, but he has only three runs of more than 30 yards in his career. Senior tight end Jerell Adams has NFL size, 6-foot-6, 231 pounds, but pedestrian production, 38 catches for 556 yards in three seasons. Plus, he has a hamstring injury this week. Freshman quarterback Lorenzo Nunez is a dynamic athlete but might simply duplicate Cooper’s strengths in this year’s offense.

Still, sophomore quarterback Connor Mitch believes he’ll have plenty of playmakers at his disposal this season, he said.

“Everyone can make plays. It just depends on the play,” he said. “You have to have faith in them. You can’t look at one player as being a bigger playmaker. I feel like everyone can do something.”

He has seen evidence of that in the last week of practice, he said.

“You can just see everyone coming along well,” he said. “The confidence grows each and every day in every person as we get more reps.”

Spurrier, though, is hesitant to anoint anyone other than Cooper before the games start. Junior offensive tackle Mason Zandi believes the plays will have to come from everywhere when they do.

“I think it’s going to be a team effort, honestly,” Zandi said. “It’s going to take all of us. Pharoh, of course, is the headliner and the talk of the town, obviously, but I think it’s going to be a team effort on offense. We’re going to need all 11 of us.”

Who’ll step up?

USC’s potential playmakers to join Pharoh Cooper:

He put up big numbers in high school, when he had 166 catches for 2,751 yards and 36 TDs.

Has four 100-yard rushing games, including two against Tennessee. Had a 70-yard TD run vs. Vols.

Made a huge play with blocked punt against Florida that led to game-tying TD. Now, needs to do it on offense.

Must heal from hamstring injury, but has size for a breakout season. Spurrier plans to throw more to TEs.

Gamecocks vs. Tar Heeks

Who: USC vs. UNC

When: Thursday, 6 p.m.

Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte