On Saturday night, 25 South Carolina football players will walk on senior night. All but two have played at some point this season.
One has already started taking his next step. Fate robbed Gamecocks tight end Kiel Pollard of a senior season. So he cut a new path, one on which his coach hopes to shepherd him along.
“Kiel is going to be extremely successful,” USC coach Will Muschamp said on his weekly call-in show. “He wants to be a coach. We’ve had multiple conversations as we continue to move forward in life. There’s a great calling for him. He can positively affect people. He’s got great people skills. He’s got an electric personality. He’s extremely bright. But he is going to be extremely successful and I hope he’s a coach because our profession needs people like him.”
This was supposed to be his year to step to the front line. He’d worked his way up, more than many, and was in line to be the Gamecocks’ top option at his position. He’d waited behind Hayden Hurst, K.C. Crosby and Jacob August, hardly playing on offense his first two years.
And then it was taken away.
He injured his neck in August camp, making a block in the way he said he was always taught not to do. A scan revealed a genetic spinal condition, and that meant it was not safe to play football.
Roommates and teammates Bryan Edwards and Chavis Dawkins said they tried to keep him upbeat, talking with him supporting him and not letting him step on the end of his playing career.
“Oh man, Kiel’s handled it well,” Edwards said. “Him being who he is, football’s been his life and he had that taken away from him. He’s done a great job and starting to adjust and get back to being himself. He was down for a moment but I’m so proud of him. He’s doing a heck of a job.”
Pollard transitioned to a role as a student coach. He spent what should’ve been a banner year helping and supporting teammates through the ups and downs of what has been a tumultuous season.
“Not sure if he wants to be on the college level or he wants to go back to high school,” Muschamp said. “He’s got a great name in the state of Georgia, especially in South Georgia for what he accomplished there.”
Pollard was one of USC’s early recruiting gets in the Muschamp era. He was a prolific player, the offensive player of the year in his state’s largest class and a centerpiece of a state champion. Then a wide receiver, he left Arkansas’ class to join South Carolina’s. He caught the coaches’ attention by the end of his first practice and didn’t redshirt despite changing positions.
Weekly interview sessions are never the most personal settings in the current college football landscape. Often times players say something bland and generic and depart. It’s just part of the arrangement.
Pollard always spoke frankly and honestly even in that setting. He explained he’d like to hear the band “Creed” played during practice, grinning when asked follow ups about the unconventional choice. He shared he struggles with not being able to break onto the field as a sophomore and the joy when he scored his first touchdown in the 2018 opener.
That upbeat nature hints at what Muschamp mentioned about his people skills and personality.
His story is one of a player who had to show patience in the thing that was his passion. It paid off and then was pulled out from under him.
Yet he stayed with the team and stuck with his goals, and his ending Saturday night will just be another kind of beginning, perhaps staying around or perhaps making a different sort of step.
“Those are some conversations we’ve had, moving forward, try to maybe create an opportunity as a graduate assistant for us after the season,” Muschamp said. “Or help him with somewhere else to create more connections for him in this profession. This profession needs more guys like him.”