Quarterback Controversy!

Steve Spurrier made frequent headlines when he was the head football coach at Florida with his trend of rotating quarterbacks. Now, a year and a half into his tenure as the Gamecock's football coach, it seems history is taking on a garnet and black tint as another quarterback controversy brews under Spurrier's watchful eye.

South Carolina began the 2006 football season with many fans anxiously awaiting to see highly touted freshman quarterback Chris Smelley. After a superb fall camp, many fans even believed Smelley would challenge incumbent starter Blake Mitchell for the starting quarterback job this year. However, heading into the fourth week of the season, it appears that a new and more viable quarterback controversy is brewing.

After fielding a sluggish offense in the first two weeks of the season, Coach Steve Spurrier knew that something needed to change. That something turned out to be the starting quarterback, as Blake Mitchell had not performed up to Spurrier's expectations in the first two games. With less than stellar offensive line play, Spurrier called upon versatile playmaker and former quarterback Syvelle Newton to make the transition back to quarterback, and although it won't be an easy transition for Newton, who has never been asked to be a pocket passer, Spurrier believes it just might be the spark that this offense needs.

Newton started at quarterback this past week against Wofford, and considering it was his first start at quarterback since November of 2004, Newton performed fairly well, as he completed 12-18 passes for 196 yards and 1 interception. Newton also showcased his scrambling ability by rushing for 67 yards. While Newton's stat line was productive, Coach Spurrier acknowledged that Newton, though capable, still has a ways to go. "Syvelle is a very smart young man. He is very capable of doing this, he just hasn't been trained. Last week, we tossed him out there and said, ‘Let's play.'"

One area in which Newton must improve, according to Spurrier, is his ability to work through his reads and have enough confidence to make the throws, rather than electing to take off and run. "The other night when we had a pass called on about the 10, 15-yard line, he tucked it and ran. We had a guy cutting over the middle against a two-deep zone and he didn't throw it. He didn't feel comfortable getting it in there and was afraid someone might pick it off. I said you have to trust it. He just hasn't been trained to do that; hopefully we can train him up a little better."

Newton last worked at quarterback in 2004 under Lou Holtz, but in Holtz offense he was not asked to make very many reads as a quarterback. Newton finished the 2004 season by completing 53% of his passes for 1,093 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, which are very respectable numbers for a first year quarterback. However, Newton admitted after the Wofford game that there is a big difference between working in Holtz offense and running Spurrier's timing and precision based passing attack. "I've never been a pocket passer in my life. That's just what the system is, just the type of offense we run. If I'm going to play quarterback, then I'm going to have to get used to it that every play is going to be a big adjustment."

Coach Spurrier announced in his weekly press conference on Tuesday that Newton would once again be the starter for this week's contest against Florida Atlantic, but the return of Blake Mitchell from a one week suspension is sure to make things interesting. Coach Spurrier addressed the situation by saying, "As far as quarterbacks, Syvelle (Newton) is ready and Blake (Mitchell) is ready. Those two will probably be the ones doing the playing. It just appears that playing both of them may give us the best chance to win; we will see how it works out. Right now we have Syvelle ready to start and Blake ready to come in and, hopefully, do what he does best."

According to Spurrier, Newton and Mitchell bring different strengths to the quarterback position. "We know we have a combination guy who can run and pass (Syvelle Newton), and (we) are hoping that Blake, through two years now of training and looking at coverages and making decisions, can do that a little bit better than Syvelle."

Spurrier stated that giving both players the opportunity to showcase their skills may be just what the offense needs. "I have a feeling both will play, and really Syvelle is ok with that. He understands that this is all new for him, and maybe playing two of them might be the best way to go. We need some kind of spark; certainly Syvelle gives us the ability to run the ball out of there."

Mitchell has been the target of some due and some undue criticism in the early part of the season. Despite the offense's inability to capitalize in the red zone, Mitchell has performed fairly well moving the offense between the twenties. Mitchell completed 63% of his passes for 247 yards in the first two games against Georgia and Mississippi State, but he also accounted for three turnovers. Spurrier admitted after the frustrating loss to Georgia, where the Gamecocks had three trips inside the red zone but came away with no points, that he did not put the offense in the best position to succeed with his red zone play calling. "I didn't call a very good one. You throw the ball down to the 10-yard line and start running. I thought the short-yardage play would work, but we've gotten smashed on it this year." Regardless, the offense must find a way to improve in red zone situations where they have only converted 2-8 opportunities into touchdowns this season.

While Coach Spurrier is hoping for Newton and Mitchell to complement each other as a 1-2 punch in the Gamecock offense, many fans are sure to take a different approach. A quarterback controversy is already brewing in Columbia, and after this weekend's game against Florida Atlantic, it will likely be raging all the more. Will it be the savvy, athletic scrambler who brings a dimension of backyard football to an offense searching for a spark, or will it be the precision pocket passer who is still looking to prove himself? Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure - college football would not be nearly as interesting without the occasional quarterback controversy.

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