2006 Position Preview: Quarterbacks

Last year at this time, the college football world sat in eager anticipation waiting for the answer to one simple question: Who would play quarterback for Steve Spurrier at South Carolina? One year later, the answer is clear - Blake Mitchell. The LaGrange (GA) native surpassed all expectations in 2005, en route to finishing in the upper echelon of the SEC in all major passing statistics.

Mitchell finished the 2005 campaign with 2,370 passing yards, 17 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, while completing 59% of his passes. He ranks second in the SEC among returning quarterbacks in both passing yards per game and total offense.

Although he wasn't always flashy, Mitchell helped lead the Gamecocks to a series of firsts last season, including the first ever win at Tennessee, the first ever win at Fayetteville (AR), the first win against the Florida Gators since 1939, and the first streak of five consecutive victories against SEC competition.

Mitchell's success as a first year starter has led to higher expectations for the 2006 season, including some media outlets naming him as a dark horse candidate to win the Heisman Trophy. However, he has remained focused this off-season in his continuing pursuit to improve both on and off the field. The coaching staff awarded Mitchell with the Weight Room Effort Award in the spring, and Coach Spurrier alluded to Mitchell's overall improvement this off-season after one of the spring scrimmages.

"Blake is much, much better prepared now than he's ever been. He's still got a little ways to go, but he's got a chance. He's checking off and picking his guys out better. He should be close to really playing very well this year."

Mitchell has also matured into more of a leadership role on the team, and Coach Spurrier acknowledged his efforts in a press conference earlier this summer.

"Blake is doing an excellent job trying to be a leader. He's organizing the guys, throwing the ball around. He's doing very well."

While Mitchell is firmly entrenched in the starting role, the race to become his backup could be intense this fall. Redshirt freshman Cade Thompson is considered to be the early favorite after an impressive performance in the annual Garnet and Black Game. Thompson completed 10-13 passes for 136 yards and 2 touchdowns, while leading the Garnet Team to a 35-7 victory. Coach Spurrier praised Thompson's performance at the conclusion of the spring game.

"It's encouraging that Cade can play if something happens. We'll try to get him as ready as we can... Cade gave himself a chance to get a shot if the opportunity arises."

Tommy Beecher is another redshirt freshman who will be looking to move up the depth chart once fall camp arrives. After considering a transfer this off-season, Beecher has elected to return and compete for playing time in the fall. Beecher looked like a typical young quarterback in the spring, as he excelled one day and struggled the next. Despite the inconsistency, Beecher showed the potential, with continued dedication, to be a solid quarterback down the road.

One newcomer who has already generated a lot of buzz among the Gamecock faithful is true freshman, Chris Smelley. At 6'3, 215 pounds, Smelley already has prototypical quarterback size, but his high school accolades are what have prompted Gamecock fans to anoint him the quarterback of the future. Smelley, an Alabama native, passed for 4,120 yards and 59 touchdowns in his senior season, on his way to being named the Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Alabama. Coach Spurrier shared his thoughts on the talented signal caller this past Signing Day.

"He (Smelley) has something special about him. He can move around and throw the ball very well. He has a chance to be a big time player for us, but I've never seen him on our practice field. We'll see how he learns our system. If it looks like he's prepared to play and he's one of our top two quarterbacks, then he's got to go play. We'll coach him with the understanding that he has a chance to play this year."

Senior, walk-on Brett Nichols will be the final contender for a spot on the depth chart this fall. Nichols saw his only action in the Auburn contest last season, but he was named the backup quarterback heading into the late November showdown with Clemson. Nichols is an intelligent, hard-working player with intermediate ability, but he could potentially challenge for a backup role this fall.

Projected Starter: Blake Mitchell Projected Backups: Cade Thompson, Tommy Beecher, Chris Smelley, Brett Nichols

This has been the first of an eight part series previewing the 2006 South Carolina football team.

Stay tuned to GamecockAnthem.com for continued, comprehensive coverage of Carolina football.

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