South Carolina’s receiving corps is not going to jump out at anyone on paper. None of the returning players had more than 64 catches or 793 yards last season (rising junior Bryan Edwards achieved both), and All-SEC tight end Hayden Hurst left for the NFL.
Dig a little deeper, and you’ll understand why at least one draft expert thinks the Gamecocks’ returning receivers are second to none.
“I can’t think of a team that has a better group of receivers coming back than South Carolina,” SBNation.com’s Dan Kadar told SEC Country last week. “Bryan Edwards is an NFL player. OrTre Smith is going to be an NFL player at some point down the line. And [Deebo] Samuel is arguably the best one of the group. He’s just a really explosive athlete. We’ll see with the injury stuff, but if you have three NFL wide receivers, that should make you look pretty good.”
Kadar didn’t even mention rising sophomore Shi Smith, who collected 29 catches for 409 yards (resulting in a stellar 14.1-yard average) during his freshman season.
As he noted, Samuel is the X factor. The preseason All-American suffered a season-ending broken leg last September, and his absence set back the Gamecocks’ big-play ability. But it also helped the group of young receivers step into the spotlight and gain experience that will make a big impact on USC’s 2018 season.
It’s a group that should make quarterback Jake Bentley look good. Kadar’s counting on it; he pegged Bentley as the No. 29 overall pick in his 2019 mock draft.
Fans got a glimpse of what’s to come during the Outback Bowl, when new offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon took the reins and helped guide the Gamecocks to an impressive come-from-behind win over Michigan. Bentley finished 19 for 32 with 239 yards and 2 touchdown passes.
“I think they’re going to ramp that [offense] up, and I think that’s just gonna put him on display even more,” Kadar said. “I think they’re going to do a lot more with him, and [Bentley’s] stats are going to pop off.”
If the Gamecocks make the leap to become one of the SEC’s best offenses, Kadar said it will introduce what he calls the Allen Robinson-Christian Hackenberg dilemma. Some background: In 2013, both Penn State players had big seasons. Just a freshman, Hackenberg grabbed NFL scouts’ attention with nearly 3,000 passing yards and 20 touchdowns.
The quarterback was touted as a potential first-round pick. But he struggled after Robinson left, forcing scouts to consider whether the receiver deserved more credit. Naturally, Robinson became a Pro Bowl selection and led the NFL in touchdown catches two years later. Hackenberg never started an NFL game.
“The debate will begin of, is it Bentley making these guys?” Kadar said. “Or is it these guys making Bentley?”
Not that South Carolina fans need to care much about that.
“They’re so talented in the passing game that that could carry them,” Kadar said. “They could be in some high-scoring games this year, and if they knock off a couple teams that could be interesting. I think they’ll be in it vs. Clemson, which could be really fun.”
South Carolina wide receivers (career stats)