COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina coach Will Muschamp believes the Gamecocks improved enough during the spring that things will only get better once two injured playmakers — receiver Deebo Samuel and linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams — are back at full speed this fall.
Muschamp’s team held its annual Garnet and Black game Saturday. The next time the Gamecocks will play in front of the home fans will be Sept. 1 in the opener against Coastal Carolina. By then, South Carolina should have dynamic leaders such as the speedy Samuel and the vocal, enthusiastic Allen-Williams.
Muschamp said OrTre Smith and Shi Smith took steps forward picking up Samuel’s reps during spring. Danny Fennell filled in capably at Allen-Williams’ spot, the coach said.
“In order to improve, you’ve got to play the game,” Muschamp said. “So those guys made some strides.”
Samuel was on his way to an All-American season with six touchdowns, two on kickoff returns, in the first three games before a leg injury against Kentucky on Sept. 16 ended his season. Samuel, who likely would’ve left for the NFL with a strong year, instead chose to come back healthy. He’s been limited during the spring, but when he’s worked out, he’s looked productive.
“Having him in spurts has been hard,” South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley said. “But he’s continued to battle through everything.”
Samuel’s shortened season ended with 15 catches in three games. His three TDs were tied for second on the team last year.
Allen-Williams injured his shoulder in the same game when Samuel was hurt. Allen-Williams needed surgery and quickly knew he would come back for his senior season. While rehabbing alongside Samuel last season, Allen-Williams helped convince his teammate that returning for 2018 could help the Gamecocks achieve big things.
“Just talking to Deebo, we talked about the things we could possibly do for this program,” Allen-Williams said earlier this month. “When we came in, we said that we wanted to win the first SEC Championship, so just coming back with another guy like that and the team that we have, we definitely have the potential, we’ve just got to continue to work.”
Allen-Williams was second on the team with 75 tackles during his sophomore season in 2016. He had 10 tackles and an interception before getting hurt.
Outside linebacker coach Mike Petersen said Allen-Williams has been engaged and active in meetings and in helping direct teammates on the field. Petersen’s kept the linebacker sharp by having him detail coverages and outline assignments in position sessions.
“He’s an older guy, but I pick on him like he’s one of the younger guys,” Petersen said. “Just to keep him sharp and mentally in tune.”
Linebacker T.J. Brunson said the Gamecocks know what they’ll have in Allen-Williams when the season starts. The spring gave the Gamecocks a chance to bring along others to enhance the defense with Allen-Williams limited mostly to meetings.
“We’ll have a more experienced defense and have a lot of guys who can help us out and make plays,” Brunson said.
South Carolina’s spring game included a visit from ex-coach Steve Spurrier, who recruited both Samuel and Allen-Williams. Spurrier threw a pair of TD passes in an alumni game held before the Gamecocks took the field. South Carolina even dusted off one of Spurrier’s favorite spring plays — a long throw to the end zone to a celebrity guest for a crowd-pleasing score. Except this time, it was Spurrier who dropped a well-thrown ball from Michael Scarnecchia amid the cheers at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“Man, he must’ve had some golfing gloves on,” Gamecocks receiver Bryan Edwards said of Spurrier’s drop.
The Gamecocks were 9-4 last season, their best mark since Spurrier’s teams went 11-2 in three straight years from 2011-13.