South Carolina Football’s GOAT Series: Top-10 greatest kick and punt returners of all-time

South Carolina football star Deebo Samuel was electric with the ball in his hands, whether as a receiver, ball carrier, or returner. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports
South Carolina football star Deebo Samuel was electric with the ball in his hands, whether as a receiver, ball carrier, or returner. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports /
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The South Carolina football program has had an up-and-down special teams history. With current special teams coordinator Pete Lembo and head coach Shane Beamer, the Gamecocks are one of the best special teams units in America. The return game is often the forgotten aspect of Carolina’s special teams dominance, but Xavier Legette took a kickoff back for a score last season, and Josh Vann was one of the country’s most consistent punt returners.

At different points in South Carolina football history, the Gamecocks have fielded elite return games. Blocking and scheme are key elements of a successful return unit, but the returner himself is the central piece of any kick return or punt return. Which men were the best of the best when returning kicks for the Gamecocks?

Honorable Mention

Xavier Legette: One of the fastest Gamecocks ever, Xavier Legette (2019-2023) has had an up-and-down career as a wide receiver, but once he got his chance as a kick returner, he shined. In addition to his speed, Legette is one of the biggest returners in Carolina history at 6’3″, 225 pounds. Legette took a touchdown back against Texas A&M in 2022 in which he broke a two-man tackle, lost his shoe, and still outraced the Aggies for 100 yards. XL will get a chance to move up this list as he returns for one final season in 2023.

Chavez Donnings: Chavez Donnings (2001-2003) was a speed demon who didn’t see much game action for most of his career. However, his athletic ability intrigued Lou Holtz enough into utilizing him occasionally as a punt returner. In one of his five chances fielding punts, Donnings scampered 73 yards to the end zone. Perhaps with more opportunities, he could have done it again.

Frank Adams: An offense-turned-defense player who came to South Carolina as a do-it-all offensive weapon, Frank Adams (1989-1993) didn’t have things work out for him very well until he was moved to cornerback. Not only did Adams see consistent playing time, but he became a better return man after his switch to defense. He returned a kickoff for a touchdown in 1992, which was also his best year all around.

Matthew Thomas: Matthew Thomas (2001-2004) was a receiver who struggled to catch the ball. This was, obviously, a problem, so Thomas was moved to corner for a time in the 2002 preseason before regaining the trust of his coaches. In his second game back at receiver, Thomas caught his first touchdown. A quarter later, he found the end zone again, this time on a 95-yard kickoff return. It would be the last kickoff return for touchdowns for the Gamecocks for 13 years. The rest of Thomas’ career as a returner was less than stellar, but his one score was a big deal.

Raynard Brown: In an era in which every running back except Thomas Dendy handled kick return duties, Raynard Brown (1983-1986) was one of three running back mates to return a kickoff for a score, though Brown’s was the most impactful. In a huge game against Florida State, Brown went 99 yards as part of six straight scores for the Gamecocks in the 38-26 win.

Captain Munnerlyn:  Captain Munnerlyn (2006-2008) was an undersized defensive back, but his elite quickness earned him some opportunities as a returner. His punt return numbers weren’t great as he often did not call for fair catches, but he had some very solid kickoff return averages. His best return came against Kentucky when he took a kick 84 yards to put the Gamecocks into scoring position.

Terry Cousin: An elite athlete at corner, Terry Cousin (1993-1996) proved too valuable to never touch the football. Midway through his career, Brad Scott moved Cousin to the starting kick return spot, and he paid back his coach’s faith with a 73-yard touchdown on a pooch kick against Louisiana Tech. Cousin went on to a solid NFL career but wasn’t utilized as a return man as a pro.

Kent Hagood: Kent Hagood (1981-1985) spent most of his career as the “other back” behind Thomas Dendy, but his freshman year is extremely underrated in Gamecock history. In 1981, Hagood was electric in non-rushing situations as he had an 83-yard touchdown reception and was an excellent kickoff returner. His return work was highlighted by a 93-yard touchdown against Hawaii in the Aloha Bowl.

Greg Philpot: As a true freshman in 1983, Greg Philpot (1983-1987) did not see the field much on defense. Despite that limited action, he would go on to become one of the best safeties in school history. But before he saw significant snaps on defense, Philpot played special teams. He was a very good special teams player as a freshman before he got a handful of punt return opportunities. He made the most of those chances when he took a punt back for a 56-yard score against Navy.

Josh Vann: Josh Vann (2018-2022) was a great success story as a Gamecock as the drop-prone young player developed into a reliable and dynamic receiver who was also a team leader. He became the punt returner in his final two seasons in garnet and black and put together some of the country’s best return averages despite never taking one back for a score. His work was solid enough that an NFL executive told him during the pre-draft process that he could start for them at punt returner “right now.” He was signed by the Carolina Panthers after the 2023 NFL Draft.

Todd Berry: Mostly the third back behind Thomas Dendy and Kent Hagood, Todd Berry (1980-1983) was typically only used at the goal line as he was, at different points of his career, a bigger running back and a faster fullback. He was able to show the “faster” part off in one of his two career kickoff returns. Against NC State in 1983, Berry went all the way for an 85-yard score.