South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel finished with 185 all-purpose yards in the first game of the season. And Samuel has to be excited about his next trip.
Next up: a visit to the other Columbia to face a Missouri defense that surrendered 43 points to a Football Championship Subdivision squad last Saturday.
David Cloninger, who covers the Gamecocks for the Post and Courier, spoke with the Tribune’s Nick Kelly this week to preview the Southeastern Conference matchup.
Q: In the first game, did South Carolina surpass expectations or did it do less than you expected?
A: They surpassed my expectations in that they won the game. I did pick them to lose because I thought NC State was going to be a little more talented. In terms of the actual production, it was about what I expected. The offense showed a lot of what it can be. They had some of the same problems that I thought they were going to have, but they found a way to win the game. Anytime you return the opening touchdown of the game and of the season, it is a huge momentum boost. Obviously, they ended up winning by a touchdown. That could end up being one of the biggest plays of the season when it is all said and done.
Q: A name that has been mentioned a lot around the Missouri locker room is Deebo Samuel. Is he living up to the hype and expectations many had coming into the season?
A: So far. The guy had three touchdowns and 185 all-purpose yards. He is that perfect guy who you can put back on kick returns and he is always a threat to break it. He’s a guy who you can use as a deep threat and as a receiver over the middle or the slot. He just has a great set of hands and he knows what he is doing out there. Despite his size, he is a very physical guy. The problem with him over the last two years was his hamstrings. He could not stay healthy and he could not get that soft tissue to really heal. Now, they figured out the answer to that, and he has become a really elite weapon on the field. Anytime you can have a quarterback have that kind of chemistry with his receiver, you are going to have a weapon. That is what Jake Bentley has in Deebo.
Q: Has South Carolina ever had a guy like Samuel?
A: In terms of a game-breaking receiver, they have had a lot of guys like that. You can go back and look at Alshon Jeffery, Pharoh Cooper, those guys, In terms of his physical skill set, you have got to go back to Kenny McKinley, who unfortunately passed away a fear years ago. He was a guy who set the school receptions record despite never playing wide receiver in high school. He was a quarterback. He was a guy you could depend on to go over the middle, he had a great set of hands, had great breakaway speed. That’s who Deebo kind of reminds me of in his absolute fearlessness to go over the middle and make tough catches. If you throw it anywhere in his vicinity, he is probably going to come down with it.
He is not going to get the jump balls like Alshon did, but he is going to get more than his share of catches. On Saturday, right before their second touchdown after the kick return, Bentley threw a pass that was going to be picked. He threw it into double coverage looking for Deebo. It was set to be intercepted. The guy was ready to fair catch it. Deebo saw it coming and knew he had no chance to catch it, so he dove at the guy and managed to knock away the pass so it was incomplete. They ended up scoring a touchdown on that drive. That ended up being a huge play, and that is the kind of thing you have to have in a guy who is a leader on the team.
Q: Other than Samuel, what about this team presents the biggest threat for Missouri?
A: I won’t say that South Carolina has the kind of offense that can match Mizzou, but they have a defense that is going to give (Mizzou) problems. They will show a look early, and if Mizzou ends up torching it, they have no problems switching it. They end up being more effective. One thing that I will say about Will Muschamp is that the guy will never sit on the status quo. He is never going to say, ‘We run the 4-3 and that is what we’re going to do.’ He is going to mix it up if it’s not working. He is going to find a way to make it effective. They thought the best way to come out against NC State was to stay back and not allow the big play, and they were getting ripped. So, they came out and made some simple adjustments, moved their guys up closer to the line, started covering receivers better, and that ended up giving the quarterback more time to throw, and that ended up giving USC’s pass rush more opportunities, which they converted. Obviously, I don’t know how much you see against an FCS opponent in the first week, but I’m not saying USC’s defense is full of all-stars, which it’s not. But they are going to have some guys give Missouri looks that they aren’t expecting.
Q: What about the Missouri offense is South Carolina fearing the most at this point?
A: It’s the tempo. South Carolina feels very confident in its starting 11 because most if not all of those guys have been on the field for a lot of snaps and a lot of games. The thing is, though, when you haven’t really produced even though you have been on the field that long, what do you really have? It is one of those where you like the guys you have out there starting, but you don’t know how long they are going to be able to go, especially on the front. Those guys are going to get tired, especially playing against a tempo team. While they are confident in their backups, those guys just haven’t played. They haven’t done it in an actual game. If Missouri does what they are supposed to do, which is tempo, tempo, tempo and snap it every 12 seconds, those guys are going to get tired, and I am not sure how that is going to affect substitution patterns. And just by process of elimination, once you take out the guys who are experienced and start putting in guys who don’t have that much experience, those backups aren’t going to be that good. That is the thing they are really concerned about defensively.
Q: If this game becomes a shootout, do you think South Carolina can keep pace with Missouri?
A: I think they can. They have a lot of weapons, and they didn’t really show off all of them last week. The running game didn’t do much against that NC State defensive front, and they very wisely scaled it back. They really have three guys at the running back position that can hurt a team. If that team isn’t very good defensively — that is at least what Missouri showed in the first week — then USC is looking to get those backs on the field and really start stretching the game out and working the clock. Also, USC is very, very blessed with tight ends. They have four or five guys that are really, really strong and a couple of them that are going to play on Sundays. The tight ends caught one pass last week. Most of the other time they spent pass blocking. I think that was kind of a good thing because Missouri doesn’t have anything to look at. You can kind of deploy those weapons as you see fit. Keep your eye on No. 81 Hayden Hurst. He is a grown man. Just go back and look at one of the touchdown runs that Rico Dowdle had and watch Hurst just blow up his blocker. It was pretty impressive to watch.
Q: As poor as the Missouri defense looked against an FCS opponent, is this South Carolina offense just getting ready to feast?
A; I hesitate to say feast because it is a Will Muschamp offense. He swears up and down that he doesn’t call the plays and that it is all Kurt Roper’s show, but c’mon. He is the head coach. If Will Muschamp can win a game 17-10, he is going to win that game 17-10. He kind of looks at the offense as, if they get ahead, we can match it. We can do that. If we can just get one stop, we can match it again and get ahead by a score and then keep playing defense. I think that is what you saw Saturday. Bentley, the guy is really good, but he has only played eight games in college. When he threw a just foolish interception on third-and-6 in a one-possession game, Will poo-pooed it saying that it was an arm punt. No, it wasn’t. That was Jake Bentley saying I am Mr. Hot Stuff quarterback and I can throw downfield. When you get to that point, if I can get that offense on the field and run the ball to extend clock, then that is what I am going to do. They weren’t able to do it so much against NC State, but they are hoping to do that against Missouri.
Q: This will be the third time South Carolina faces Missouri quarterback Drew Lock. Are the Gamecocks feeling confident facing him? Or how do they feel now that he is a lot more experienced?
A: Nothing but respect from the players. We got to talk to a lot of them today. Obviously, the guy has thrown for a lot of yards. He is really good and knows what he is doing out there. They do, though, remember last year where Lock made some mistakes that cost them the game. You just can’t have two turnovers inside the 2-yard line. You just can’t do that. They are thinking that, ‘Well, we know he has been in the same offense for a second year now,’ but if the time comes they are hoping he makes the same mistakes again. USC is not full of all-stars on defense, but they have a lot of guys who have played a lot of games. If he was throwing interceptions to Rashad Fenton and Chris Lammons last year, what is he going to do against a guy like Skai Moore, who is now back on the team, and a guy like PJ Brooks, who had 16 tackles last week? They think that they can maybe, I’m not saying sack him, but at least get to him and affect him.
Q: What is your prediction for this game?
A: I haven’t officially made my prediction yet, but I am going to predict South Carolina will win. I really think South Carolina has a little confidence now. They made enough big plays last week, getting sacks and getting fumbles, that they think they are going to be able to do that again. They are fully confident in Jake Bentley and their offense. If I had to guess it, I would say South Carolina wins by a touchdown, maybe even three points. I couldn’t tell you how that is going to happen just because they are breaking in two new field-goal kickers. One guy takes it inside the 30, one guy takes it beyond the 30. If this game comes down to a kick, we don’t know what is going to happen. But I think South Carolina has enough to get ahead by a score and get out of there 2-0.