The San Francisco 49ers were thrilled to land Deebo Samuel with the 36th-overall pick last weekend. The former South Carolina star adds a big-play threat at receiver to Kyle Shanahan's offense. He posted 882 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns for the Gamecocks in 2018 and flourished into one of this year's most coveted wide receiver prospects. San Francisco made him the third wide receiver to come off the board in the 2019 NFL Draft.
But if you ask Samuel, he'd tell you that he wasn't even supposed to be a member of the 2019 draft class. He envisioned his name being called a year earlier. That was the plan, anyway.
Samuel opened his junior season in 2017 with a 97-yard kick return touchdown against North Carolina State. He reached 22 miles per hour according to South Carolina's GPS analytics system. Samuel took an identical 97-yard return to the house the very next week against Missouri. Samuel then dominated Kentucky in Week 3 to the tune of five receptions for 122 yards, including a 67-yard score in the Gamecock's first possession.
Everybody knew that Samuel was on track to forgo his senior year and declare for the NFL. But plans go awry, and Samuel suffered a broken ankle in the final moments against Kentucky.
"Ten percent of life is what happens to you and 90 percent is what you do about it," South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp told 49ers.com. "I really admired the way (Deebo) approached his rehab. For some young people that would have been very difficult to do."
The broken ankle cost Samuel six weeks. But just as the receiver neared his return, he suffered a broken foot that officially ended his 2017 season. Samuel's draft stock plummeted following the setback, and he opted to remain at South Carolina.
"Some of those conversations were hard," Muschamp recalled. "His dreams of playing in the NFL (were put on hold) because the way he was playing that season, there's no doubt he was coming out. Then all of a sudden those hopes and dreams are crashing down with another setback."
Samuel tirelessly worked his way back to 100 percent and went on to enjoy a standout final season with the Gamecocks. His production combined with a clean bill of health helped him reemerge as a Day 2 selection on draft day.
It's not the statistics, but rather the determination that will be Muschamp's lasting memories of his former pupil.
"Through all of that adversity he had a fantastic senior year," the coach said. "He pushed himself and persevered through it all."
Muschamp also raved about Samuel's traits as a receiver, his preparation and his work ethic in practice. The coach noted that the 5-foot-11 wideout plays bigger than his size and has unusual lower body strength. Samuel's physicality lends itself to explosive plays when coupled with his 4.48 speed.
"He runs violent," Muschamp said. "He competes when he runs. His run after catch is something that's exciting because of his top-end speed and his short-area quickness to find space. Then he runs through contact extremely well."
San Francisco enjoyed a week-long look at Samuel at the 2019 Senior Bowl. The receiver was on the South Team roster coached by the 49ers. That week in Mobile, Ala., is what helped the 49ers fall in love with the person as well as the player.
"The best thing for Deebo and San Francisco was having him at the Senior Bowl," Muschamp said. "They could see how he approached it – the way he practices and the way he goes after it. He competes. He's got a great competitive edge about him."
The 49ers believe, as does Muschamp, that Samuel has the ability to play split wide as well as in the slot. South Carolina runs a pro-style offense, which means that Samuel's route tree is more polished than many of his counterparts in this year's draft. His ability to read coverages should also be ahead of the curve.
Those are both factors that lead Muschamp to believe that Samuel can make an immediate impact in San Francisco.
"He will transition well because he's extremely bright, and I think he'll handle it extremely well," Muschamp said. "He's excited to start the next chapter of his life. He's anxious to get going."