To wear No. 1 is to label yourself special. Houston Oilers quarterback Warren Moon was special. Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is special.
South Carolina wide receiver Deebo Samuel is special-in-the-making.
The Gamecocks are 1-0 following a mild upset over N.C. State Saturday, 35-28, at Bank of America Stadium. This was the second time Samuel, a junior from Inman, S.C., has played in an NFL stadium. It certainly won’t be his last.
Samuel announced his presence in this game’s first 13 seconds, cutting up the left sideline to return this game’s opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. That was far from his only impact Saturday; he caught two touchdown passes from quarterback Jake Bentley, of six and 39 yards.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Samuel’s actual first name is Tyshun. “Deebo” is a nickname derived from the 1995 movie “Friday.” Tiny Lister Jr., played Deebo, the neighborhood bully. I can see how that nickname stuck with Samuel.
He’s not particularly big at 6-foot. However, he weighs 215 pounds, and close as I can tell, that’s entirely muscle. It’s a prerequisite to being an NFL wide receiver that you run routes dependably and catch balls in your catch radius. The premium comes when a wide receiver has the strength and moves to morph into a running back once he secures the catch.
Samuel is that guy. He might not have to pure athleticism of, say, former Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, but he inspires the same imagination from offensive coordinators. As in, find a way to isolate him on one defensive back, and watch the havoc that ensues.
When Chad Morris was Watkins’ offensive coordinator, he spent weeks looking for innovative ways to isolate Watkins in opposing coverage. South Carolina has that same advantage this season. It felt like the Gamecocks could have run that same slant pattern 50 times Saturday, and it would have kept producing yards, first downs, and eventually touchdowns.
Samuel finished this game with five catches for 83 yards, plus that kickoff return. It was the second kickoff return of his career at South Carolina. It was also the second kickoff return by any Gamecock since 2002.
“We knew No. 1 was a great football player,” said N.C. State coach Dave Doeren, looking pretty downcast postgame.
You won’t hear Samuel echo what Doeren said. He came to the interview-room podium with Bentley. Braggadocio was the only thing Samuel did not deliver Saturday.
So Bentley did it for him. I asked Bentley, a sophomore, if his mouth waters at the sight of an opposing team single-covering Samuel.
“I honestly don’t believe – he probably won’t say it because he’s a humble guy – but I don’t think anyone in the country can guard him,” Bentley replied.
“Especially, the way we have trained together. I know where to put the ball when he’s covered, to put it in a place where he can make a play on it. That’s what we did today.”
So, Deebo, can anyone in the country guard you?
“No comment,” Samuel responded with a grin.
Samuel played at Bank of America Stadium in 2015, when the Gamecocks beat North Carolina 17-13. Samuel injured a hamstring in that game, and that’s become somewhat a pattern for his college career. That has probably diminished some of the attention he otherwise would have drawn entering this season.
Samuel should get plenty of attention, following that one-handed 39-yard touchdown catch in the end zone, to break a 21-21 halftime tie.
Bentley scrambled right, saw Samuel in full stride, and led his receiver to the extent that Samuel had to cradle the ball with his left hand, without aid of his right, for the score.
“I saw Deebo just running across the field,” Bentley said. “I gave him a chance, and he made an unbelievable play.”
Not so unbelievable, Samuel said.
“We work on scramble drills every other day at practice,” Samuel described. “When he rolled out, I kept on running my route. I saw the ball, and had to make a play.”
Samuel wasn’t a sure thing coming out of high school. Rivals ranked him the 17th-best senior in South Carolina and the 53rd-best wide receiver in his recruiting class.
After Saturday, it’s a lock there aren’t 52 college wide receivers the NFL finds more intriguing.