I f the 2017 Southeastern Conference football season ended today, the vote for league MVP would be a landslide.
Need an obvious hint?
South Carolina junior receiver Deebo Samuel has scored five touchdowns through his team's 2-0 start, negating the fact the Gamecocks have been outgained by a combined 322 yards in games against North Carolina State and Missouri. The 6-foot, 215-pounder from Inman, S.C., enters this week's contest against visiting Kentucky averaging 15.0 yards per rush, 12.8 yards per reception and an eye-popping 97.0 yards per kickoff return.
"When you have a guy like Deebo Samuel, it makes you look good, because he's going to make guys miss," South Carolina second-year coach Will Muschamp said during a news conference after last Saturday night's 31-13 win at Missouri. "He's a competitive guy, and he's going to go after it every snap. I'm extremely proud of how he's playing.
"He's really good when the ball is in his hands, but he's also really good when it isn't. He works extremely hard, and that's why I think he has tremendous respect from his teammates."
Samuel set the tone for a potentially special season for the Gamecocks by taking the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown in the 35-28 win over North Carolina State in Charlotte on Sept. 2. He also had receiving touchdowns of 6 and 39 yards from sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley.
In last week's win at Mizzou, the Tigers had the momentum and a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter after a 61-yard touchdown pass from Drew Lock to Jason Reese. It was 10-7 precisely 15 seconds later, as Samuel produced his second 97-yard kickoff return of the young season.
Lock was intercepted by South Carolina freshman linebacker Jamyest Williams on the next play from scrimmage, and on the play after that, Samuel scored on a 25-yard run for a 14-10 advantage the Gamecocks never relinquished.
"He just picks us up," Bentley said. "When we're struggling on offense or we need a spark for our team, he's that guy. He wants to make the big play. He wants the ball in his hands.
"He's just an incredible guy to have on your team."
Samuel, whose given name is Tyshun and whose nickname is from the neighborhood bully played by Tiny Lister in the 1995 movie "Friday," led the Gamecocks as a sophomore last year with 59 catches for 783 yards and a touchdown. In the 46-39 overtime loss to South Florida in last December's Birmingham Bowl, he racked up 14 catches for 190 yards.
This season, for obvious reasons, he's taken a liking to kickoff returns. Samuel already owns the school record for career kick returns for touchdowns with three, all coming in his last five games.
"A kick return for touchdown can give a defense momentum," Samuel said, "so they can just build off of that. We have a different scheme in every week. When I see a gap, I just hit it."
The big question now is whether opponents will keep kicking to Samuel.
"I think they need to keep trying to," Muschamp said.
South Carolina surpassed most expectations a year ago by posting a 6-6 regular season that included a 24-21 upset of No. 18 Tennessee. The Gamecocks opened last year with a 13-10 win at Vanderbilt but didn't win another game away from Williams-Brice Stadium.
That the Gamecocks already have two wins away from home is pleasing to Muschamp, who doesn't believe the raised hopes his team has provided so far will be detrimental in any way.
"Our guys will handle this fine," Muschamp said. "I think this is a pretty grounded group. They understand it's about our preparation and how we go about our business."
And, of course, having Deebo Samuel on the roster.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.