COLUMBIA, S.C. — You can glean a lot about a college program when listening to the flagship station’s spring-game broadcast. It’s easily the most informal production of the football season — a casual exercise that offers more anecdotal nuggets, one-line zingers and tangential stories than intense play-by-play coverage.
(The score rarely gets promoted, as well, an irrelevant factoid when a certain freshman passer — Brandon McIlwain — handles the duties of ‘all-time quarterback’ for long periods.)
This was the case on Saturday, while taking in the Gamecocks Radio Network feed of the Garnet & Black spring game.
The announcers were breezily discussing how South Carolina would replace Pharoh Cooper (two-year average: 66 catches, 973 yards, 8 TDs), when someone offered an old paraphrased line from former UGA head coach Mark Richt, regarding the Gamecocks receivers of years past.
Where are the monsters?
That was apparently Richt’s playful musing when assessing South Carolina’s receiving corps, after Alshon Jeffery (6-foot-4, 230 pounds, amazing red-zone talent) took his game to the NFL. It might have also been an homage to the Gamecocks’ well-proportioned pass-catchers during the prolific Steve Spurrier era (one SEC East title in 2010, 86 wins from 2005-15, five bowl victories, three straight 11-2 campaigns), namely Sidney Rice, Jared Cook, Weslye Saunders, Jerell Adams and Shaq Roland.
With South Carolina undergoing a substantial change at the top — swapping out the pass-happy Spurrier for the more run-oriented Will Muschamp (14th head coach in program history) — it remains to be seen whether any Gamecocks receivers will flirt with 1,000 yards and/or double-digit touchdowns this fall.
Looking down the road, though, you should expect encouraging flashes of brilliance from two wideouts in 2016: The mercurial Deebo Samuel and one-time walk-on Javon Charleston, who may dominate SEC cornerbacks someday, on the presumption of 15 pounds of muscle added to his 6-foot-1 frame (some Web sites list him at 6-foot-3).
The above assessment of Charleston isn’t some form of wide-eyed hyperbole. He may be an SEC newbie and a shade under 190 pounds, but the kid also has the raw physical prowess of someone like Anquan Boldin, Baylor pro prospect Jay Lee (a little-known star-in-waiting at the next level) or Ole Miss star Laquon Treadwell (a fellow Illinois state native) — in terms of garnering quick separation from defenders at various points of route running.
“I definitely have big expectations for myself,” says Charleston (team-high 49 receiving yards on Saturday), not shying away from the expansive media attention.
Samuel has the look of a more polished product. During the first half on Saturday, he was typically the first read for quarterbacks McIlwain and Connor Mitch. Deebo is also the Gamecocks’ leading returning receiver (third on the 2015 squad), modestly collecting 12 catches, 161 yards and one TD as a freshman.
Let the above parenthetical comment sink in for a bit. South Carolina had only two pass-catchers (Cooper, Adams) notch the easily attainable mark of 200 receiving yards last year.
From an offense inspired by Steve Freaking Spurrier. Yikes!
Translation: It will likely be a long climb for Samuel, Charleston and receiver-turned-tailback Jamari Smith to restore prominence back to the Gamecocks’ vertical attack — a must-have for surviving the rigors of SEC play (and the season finale against Clemson).
“It’s all about ‘next man up,'” says Charleston (team-high 54 receiving yards on Saturday). “It’s the SEC, and we all need to play at at high level.”
Samuel has similar enthusiasm for Smith, who has the versatility for defensive back, receiver and running back at the SEC level.
“I don’t think anyone can tackle (Smith — 57 total yards on Saturday) in open space, he’s just a great athlete,” marvels Samuel.
Put it all together, and these seedlings of progress, in terms of raw physical talent and a relentless desire to improve over the summer (break from the coaching staff), are something to behold for a program which desperately needs impact playmakers.
“In the beginning of the spring, we had a lot of mistakes, but towards the end we picked up the tempo well,” Charleston said. “Guys were catching the ball well, and quarterbacks were going along with their reads. We just have to continue to get better individually, and when we come together if everyone has done their assignments, we will be good as a team.”
Charleston thrilled the crowd of 32,00-plus at Saturday’s scrimmage, making a great sideline catch off a deep rainbow pass from McIlwain (4-star recruit) — a sleeper starting candidate for the fall. It was a signature moment full of short-term hope and long-term joy for the fans, many of whom may already be envisioning three or four full years of a McIlwain-to-Charleston connection.
“I learned to be patient, like my time will come,” said Charleston of his redshirt campaign on campus. “You learn that you’re either going to get better or worse every day.
“(Watching Cooper) really opened my eyes to see what it takes to be good,” says Charleston. “But I got adjusted to the speed and everything, it feels natural now.”
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.