Receiver Deebo Samuel key to South Carolina's strong start
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Deebo Samuel feels completely healthy - and finally able to contribute to South Carolina's surprising start.
The dynamic junior receiver has accounted for five touchdowns , more than halfway to last year's eight TDs for the Gamecocks. That's included kickoff return scores in both games this year after spending much of his time here bothered by a hamstring injury.
''You now see,'' South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley said, ''how he can change the game by himself.''
For Samuel, the reason is as simple: He's healthy and playing the way he's wanted to since coming to the Gamecocks.
''I feel good,'' Samuel said Tuesday. ''I've showed you all what I'm capable of when I'm healthy.''
Samuel and the Gamecocks (2-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) hope to continue their early run against Kentucky (2-0), which is opening SEC play at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Samuel, a six-foot speedster, was slotted for a big role in the offense in 2015 when he hurt his hamstring in the opener against North Carolina and missed all but five games. The injury followed Samuel last year and he was out for three of South Carolina's first six games. Samuel still led the team with 59 catches and 783 receiving yards.
This year, Samuel looks like he's making up for lost time - and playing himself into the Heisman Trophy discussion.
He took the season-opening kickoff 97 yards and scored twice more including on a one-handed catch in the end zone in a 35-28 victory over North Carolina State. Down 10-0 at Missouri this past week, Samuel almost single-handedly took care of the comeback.
Samuel broke free for another 97-yard touchdown return in the second quarter and then, after defensive back Jamyest Williams' interception got the ball back, scored on a 25-yard run on the next play to put South Carolina up 14-10. Samuel's touchdowns came 15 seconds apart.
Samuel is second in the Southeastern Conference in all-purpose yards and leads the league with his five touchdowns.
''You saw that from day one when he walked in that Deebo was going to be a dynamic player,'' senior linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams said. ''A couple of injuries his first two years, but he's a breakout player. I'm glad he's on my team and we don't have play against every week.''
Samuel and his coaches knew that not tweaking the hamstring during the offseason was going to be essential to Samuel having a strong season.
So Samuel took part in team yoga classes to increase his flexibility. He would much rather have lifted weights or run sprints than go through the downward dog poses and such he had to during yoga sessions.
''I actually didn't like yoga because I'm not a flexible guy so every position they put me in kind of hurt,'' he said. ''But I do think it helped.''
The results have been impressive enough that Samuel has been talked about for college football's biggest individual award. Samuel's not worried about that now, although his teammates think the talk will continue all season.
''If one man can change the game that much, he definitely deserves to be on (the Heisman) list and get the national attention,'' said Bentley, the sophomore quarterback.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said his team will have its hands full slowing down Samuel and looking for its fourth straight win over the Gamecocks.
''He obviously has top-end speed, and can make people miss but it also has vision,'' Stoops said. ''That's where you know you have a very good football player. He does a lot of things.''
South Carolina coach Will Muschamp has seen Samuel invest more in the program, including staying here much of the offseason, than the past couple of years and believes that has made a difference.
''We can't be with him all the time,'' Muschamp said. ''And he's certainly on his own and working hard to put himself in this position.''
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