March 5, 2008

Spring Preview: Three-Way QB Battle Looms

With three-year starter Blake Mitchell graduated, the starting quarterback job for South Carolina is up for grabs among three primary candidates - redshirt sophomore Chris Smelley, redshirt junior Tommy Beecher and heralded redshirt freshman Stephen Garcia.

Named the starter after the LSU loss, Smelley led USC to three consecutive victories over Mississippi State, Kentucky and North Carolina and a No. 6 ranking in the BCS standings in the middle of last season before a bitterly disappointing home defeat to Vanderbilt changed the landscape of the year.

Mitchell took the QB reins for the final four games of the season, all losses. Erratic quarterback play was one of the reasons the Gamecocks finished eighth in the conference in total offense.

As a result, head coach Steve Spurrier contends all three quarterbacks will start from the same place when spring practice begins March 19.

"The quarterback position is wide open," Spurrier said Monday night. "Those three will get practically all the snaps this spring. We'd like to name one at the end of spring practice as the starter. But, again, sometimes during the summer, a guy can overtake a guy who comes out of the spring as number one. It's a constant competition to be the starter. But hopefully, we'll have one who is clearly the best and will create a spread there."

If you took a poll of USC fans, Garcia, who reportedly will miss a couple of practices this spring over class attendance issues, would likely be the overwhelming favorite to start the Aug. 28 season opener against N.C. State.

But Spurrier has repeatedly said Garcia still has a lot to learn about playing quarterback in the SEC. However, after a troubling start to his USC career in January of 2007, he has settled down into campus life and becoming a productive member of the football team.

If physical talent alone won jobs in college football, Garcia would easily be the starter, since he possesses the strongest throwing arm of all the candidates.

But a quarterback in Spurrier's system must also be able to think on his feet and correctly decipher in seconds today's sophisticated defenses, then audible out of a bad play, if necessary. That's where there is a deep learning curve for any young quarterback.

"Garcia needs to tighten up everything he does," Spurrier said. "Steve will get a chance. We'll see how he does."

While Garcia is making progress, we'll find out this spring how much. By all accounts, he was terror on the scout team last fall when he redshirted, so this spring marks his initial opportunity to run the first-team offense on a day-to-day basis.

"Stephen is working hard and he's come a long way as far as knowledge of the offense," quarterbacks coach David Reaves said recently. "I know the fans have a lot of excitement about him. This spring will be the first time he'll be able to get out there and run with the first and second team offenses. We want to see what he can do when he goes against the first team defense. He has the athletic ability to beat those guys. We're looking forward to coaching him."

Smelley underwent what Spurrier described as minor shoulder surgery this off-season to fix an injury sustained in the 2007 season opener when he was blindsided by a blitzing Louisiana-Lafayette linebacker. But he's expected to be ready to compete for the starting job when spring practice starts in about two weeks.

Prior to the Vanderbilt game, Smelley performed well after replacing Mitchell as the starting QB and finished the year with a respectable 56.8 percent completion percentage (92 of 162) for 1,176 yards and nine touchdowns with seven interceptions for a efficiency rating of 127.46.

"Chris is doing well" Reaves said. "He's working hard in the off-season program. He's doing everything right. He's in the classroom and studying on his own. We're excited for Chris to have a good spring practice."

Beecher completed 14 of 23 passes for 175 yards and one touchdown in limited action last season. He could play a larger role next season.

The most intriguing question to be answered this spring is how the three quarterbacks will adjust to Spurrier's tweaking of the offense that should allow them greater freedom to run with the football.

While some believe Spurrier's plans favor Garcia, who was a record-breaking dual threat quarterback in high school, Reaves warns fans not to underestimate Beecher and Smelley.

"Tommy Beecher is very athletic," Reaves said. "I've been impressed with him in the workouts, as well as Chris Smelley. We're going to have a little package for these guys for a little running, getting out of the pocket, a few rollouts. We want to help our O-Line out a little bit too. Nowadays, you have to run the quarterback and have an offense where he gets outside a little bit to keep the defense off-balance."

Reaves said he's looking forward to watching USC's three scholarship quarterbacks battle throughout the 15 spring practices allowed under NCAA rules.

"It's going to be fun," Reaves said. "These guys have worked hard in the off-season. They're all about the same size, 6-2, 225 to 230 pounds, so they're similar in that aspect. They're all trying to earn that starting spot. We're going to give them a chance and let them go out there and compete. Hopefully, we can nail one down before the end of spring."

The fourth quarterback on the roster this spring is walk-on Zac Brindise of Fort Myers, Fla. He's the younger brother of former Florida quarterback Noah Brindise, who played under Spurrier in the mid-1990's.

2008 signees Aramis Hillary and Reid McCollum will join the program in July for the start of the second session of summer school and summer conditioning.

Spurrier views the pending competition among the three main quarterbacks this spring as a natural course of events.

"Spring practice is for the young guys who haven't played much and for guys who are competing for starting jobs," Spurrier said. "We like to say all jobs are open every year. Just because a players is a starter one year doesn't mean he going to be the starter the next year if someone can beat him out."

Tommy Beecher
Zac Brindise**
Stephen Garcia
Chris Smelley

** Walkon

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