How Antwane Wells is preparing for encore season at South Carolina

How much is there really for Antwane “Juice” Wells to improve on this fall?

He finished second in the Southeastern Conference in receiving last year behind only Tennessee’s Jalin Hyatt. Wells’ 555 yards after the catch were the most among any pass-catcher in the league. His six touchdown receptions were double as many as the next best Gamecocks.

“I saw a thing on social media the other night with a picture about how he’s one of the leaders in the SEC in have yards after contact, or something like that,” head coach Shane Beamer said, starting to smirk. “Well, that was great, but the ball security on the play was god awful. Obviously, you got to coach that better.”

Wells, under most circumstances, would’ve been off to the NFL. His 2022 season was that impressive. But with quarterback Spencer Rattler back in the fold, new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains in tow and a chance to cement himself as the SEC’s best receiver, he’s back in Columbia.

Fourteen months after transferring to South Carolina from James Madison, Wells is intent on ensuring he’s no one-hit wonder.

“Having all that hunger built up in from being overlooked to now,” he said, “I’m very grateful for this position that I’m in.”

Flash back about about about a year, when Wells visited South Carolina. His name was, at the very least, intriguing, should he commit to the Gamecocks at the time. He’d virtually rewritten the James Madison history books in two years with the program. He tied the school’s all-time mark for single-season receptions and broke the record for receiving yards and touchdowns in 2021. How that would translate to the SEC, though, remained to be seen.

Boy did it.

Wells received ample praise internally in the lead up to last fall. Staffers inside the building felt they might’ve struck gold with the FCS transfer, but they needed to sort through the rest of a deep receiver room. The Gamecocks returned 2021 leading receiver Josh Vann, Dakeron Joyner, Jalen Brooks and tight end Jaheim Bell. Still, there was a need for a player who could alleviate some pressure off Vann when stretching the field up the sidelines. Wells did that and then some.

The Virginia native finished his first season at South Carolina with 68 receptions for 928 yards. He went for 110 yards or more on four different occasions — including an 11-catch, 177-yard effort in the upset win over then-No. 5 Tennessee.

Awards rolled in. Wells was named a first team All-SEC performer by Pro Football Focus, Phil Steele and the league’s coaches. Phil Steele also granted him an honorable mention All-American nod.

“He’s always got that edge,” receivers coach Justin Stepp said. “He’s trying to win and he’s trying to compete. ... I’m really proud of how he’s working and how he’s pushing himself to get better. His ultimate goal is to play the next level. And I think he knows he’s gonna put really good stuff on tape for another year, and I’m really pleased with how he’s doing.”

Stepp concedes there were days he thought his star pupil would turn pro. Wells didn’t. Now he and Rattler will form one of the most intriguing quarterback-receiver combos in the SEC this fall.

Wells’ return is a welcome one, at the very least, given the Gamecocks lose four of their top five pass-catchers from last season. The best option returning at receiver? That’s, perhaps, Ahmarean Brown, who finished seventh on the team in 2022 with 23 catches for 188 yards — 55 yards of which came in a win over Charlotte.

Not that it’s any grand secret, but the lack of returning production likely means more targets for Wells. Not a bad thing considering the rapport he and Rattler established in connecting for 20 completions, 308 yards and two touchdowns in the wins over Tennessee and Clemson to close out 2022 regular season.

“This year, it’s like, ‘All right, the (NFL) is the next step,’ ” Wells said. “I’m just trying to make sure I stay healthy throughout the season, making sure I’ve got that little voice in the back of my head like, ‘Keep going,’ because this is my last year.’ ”

Attention aside, Wells has attacked this offseason with a purpose, Stepp said. He’s not a player that needs much motivation. There’s enough internal drive from a stint at prep school, being under-recruited and now taking one more year to impressive NFL scouts. That’s kept Wells going heading toward the 2023 season.

If all goes to plan, the awards will roll in again come December. Expect more internet graphics to surface — though, theoretically, the ball security in those photos ought to be a bit better.