Spurrier: Blake Mitchell deserves to play

When Steve Spurrier was the head coach at Florida, he would often rotate two quarterbacks into the game based on their performance. That trend had not carried over during Spurrier's first two and a half years at USC, but he announced on Tuesday afternoon that he will likely play senior quarterback Blake Mitchell behind starter Chris Smelley in Saturday's game against the Vanderbilt Commodores.


Smelley, a redshirt freshman, had started the previous three games ahead of Mitchell ever since playing well in the second half of a road loss to the LSU Tigers. The Tuscaloosa, AL native has played efficiently this season, completing 56% of his passes for 982 yards, 9 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions. However, Smelley does not yet have the experience that Mitchell, a fifth year senior, possesses, and having a veteran presence available could prove valuable with a tough second half of the schedule ahead. According to Spurrier, there is a place for both signal-callers in the offense, and he believes Mitchell deserves to play based on his recent performance in practice.

"We may let Blake go play some this week. There's not a huge difference between him and Chris Smelley," said Spurrier. "Blake can play. He's practiced well, and he deserves to play."

"(Blake) has done pretty good. He practiced well last night, and maybe because he practiced so well we as a coaching staff said, 'Hey, he needs to play some. He deserves to play some also,'" said Spurrier. "Chris (Smelley) wasn't all that bad, but he wasn't all that great. He's doing fine, but there's probably not a huge difference right now. Chris is starting the game, and we'll go from there."

Spurrier was quick to point out that quarterback play was not the cause of Carolina's second half struggles against UNC on Saturday night, instead pointing to the inability to convert on third down and short situations.

"Quarterback was not our problem last week. Our problem was 3rd and 1. That was our problem. If you don't make 3rd and 1 when you try to run for it, then you punt and you don't get back out there for a while. That was probably our biggest problem - the 3rd and short yardage situations. That half is history, and we sort of know what happened. Some of the play calling could have been a lot better, but in the final essence we did win the game."

According to Spurrier, the Gamecocks feel very fortunate to have left Chapel Hill with a victory following their poor second half showing, and he insists that this team cannot afford to overlook anybody they play.

"We did a lot of things to give those guys a chance, but it's history now. We're extremely thankful and fortunate we got out of their a winner," he said. "We're not sitting around here bragging about beating anybody. We're just trying to get better as a team. Sometimes winning like that helps you prepare the next week. We certainly don't have a bunch of cocky players around here. We have a bunch of players that realize we could lose to anybody we play if we don't improve our play real soon."

Turning his attention to this weekend's game against Vanderbilt (3-3 overall, 1-3 in the SEC), Spurrier stated that the Gamecocks have a lot of respect for Coach Bobby Johnson's Commodores.

"We're looking forward to playing this game," said Spurrier. "Vanderbilt is a very good team. I know before the season some of their players mentioned that one of their goals was to go to a BCS game. They felt that their team was capable of winning nine or ten games this year. They've lost to three very good teams - Alabama, Auburn and Georgia. Those were all pretty close games except the Auburn game."

"Vandy has good players, and they had an excellent chance to beat Georgia last week. They fumbled on the 10-yard line going in, and Georgia put a drive together to beat them 20-17. Anyways, they're third in the conference in total defense... They rank ahead of us on defense. They've got a good scheme of things, and they play hard and play tough. It's going to be a difficult game."

Last fall the Gamecocks defeated Vanderbilt 31-13 in Nashville, and Spurrier believes that was one of his team's best overall performances in the 2006 campaign.

"We looked back (last year) and thought maybe the Vandy game was one of the best we played all year on offense and defense. Syvelle Newton was sensational in that game. Sidney (Rice) had a good game and Kenny McKinley. We ran the ball pretty well and offensively we got 31 (points) and had a touchdown called back. Hopefully we can start playing a lot better offensively."

Spurrier believes it will take a similar effort to last season for the Gamecocks to emerge victorious against the Commodores this Saturday.

"We're excited about the game, and sometimes winning a game where you don't play your best - last week I think the second half was by far the worst offensive half we've had all year, and defensively the fourth quarter was the worst we've had all year - we've got a lot to coach on this week, and we're going to try to play a lot better if we're going to beat Vandy. We realize every team we play can beat us, and if we play very well then we've got a chance to beat hopefully everybody we play."

One player the Gamecocks are very familiar with is Vanderbilt's All-SEC wide receiver Earl Bennett, who had a 16 catch, 204 yard receiving effort against the Gamecocks in 2005. Fortunately for USC, the secondary bounced back last season and held Bennett in check, and Spurrier hopes they can have a similar effort this weekend.

"Earl Bennett's about ready to set the SEC all-time reception mark. I think he only needs four or five catches, something like that, We played him well last year. We held him to three or four catches for about 16 yards. If we can that again, certainly it would give us a real good chance to beat them. He's an outstanding player."

After announcing his plans to play two quarterbacks on Saturday, Spurrier noted that Vanderbilt has a similiar setup with sophomore Mackenzi Adams and junior Chris Nickson both seeing time this year.

"I think Bobby Johnson got to the point where he wanted to look at his second quarterback. The first guy wasn't playing all that well, and his other guy did well (against Georgia). They're probably a little bit like us. He thinks both of them deserve to play, so why not let them both play? That's where we are. We think both of our guys deserve to play, and we'll go from there."


Notes:

- On the injury front, Spurrier said that cornerback Carlos Thomas will return to the lineup this weekend after sitting out against UNC with a neck injury, and safety Darian Stewart will play as well after tweaking his knee against the Tar Heels. However, he noted that safety Stoney Woodson is still limited with a nagging hamstring injury. Spurrier also mentioned that linebacker Dustin Lindsey is not back from his knee injury.

- When asked if the offensive line struggles against UNC would result in any lineup changes, Spurrier replied, "We'll probably have a new guard or two in there." He will not announce names until later in the week.

- Spurrier said that the coaches continue to work with several of the younger receivers to get them ready to contribute, stating, "We're practicing with them every day and every night, and we're going to practice again with them today. When they prove they can run fast routes and get open and catch the football, they'll get a lot of passes coming their way."

- Spurrier said he is proud of the offense's success in the red zone, noting that they have made the most of their opportunities: "We're scoring touchdowns instead of kicking field goals. If we were kicking field goals, what would we be, 2-4 or 3-3? We've maximized our chances, and hopefully it will continue. You don't know that it will or not, but we need to coach better and play better to have a chance, and we're going to try to do that this week."


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