Stephen Garcia: Ready to compete

When quarterback Stephen Garcia enrolled at South Carolina last spring, he did so with Gamecock fans' high hopes riding on his young shoulders. His larger-than-life personality and confident attitude only served to heighten those expectations. After taking a redshirt year to adjust to the college game, Garcia now appears primed to challenge for USC's starting quarterback job in 2008.

Ranked as the No. 18 quarterback in the nation coming out of high school and holding offers from programs such as Auburn, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Boston College, and Louisville, the 6'3", 212 pound Garcia is the highest ranked quarterback USC has signed under head coach Steve Spurrier. He also may be the most highly-recruited quarterback to sign with the Gamecocks since Todd Ellis in the late 1980's.

While most kids his age would have been looking forward to graduating and taking a trip for Senior Week in the coming months, the four-star signal-caller chose to enroll early at USC in order to begin learning the Spurrier offense and to get better acclimated to college life.

The Tampa, FL native had no problems fitting in with his peers, but life may have thrown too much his way at one time. After Garcia was arrested twice within a two-week span in mid-February and early March last year, Spurrier was left with no choice but to suspend his young star from participating in all team activities for the extent of spring practice. The arrests and ensuing suspension proved to be swift eye-openers for Garcia.

"I got in trouble down in five points and haven't been down there since, which is a pretty big thing. It wasn't the most fun thing and wasn't the most fun experience, but it happened and I had to grow up a lot faster than I wanted to," Garcia said. "I'm very thankful it happened, because I grew up a lot. I matured a lot."

"(I was) taking 16 hours (of classes) and doing the workouts. I've never done anything like that before. And all the publicity it was pretty breathtaking," Garcia said. "I had to get used to it, and this year I'm a lot more comfortable."

Since Garcia's suspension was lifted he has been a model citizen on the team and has become a player his teammates look up to. His natural persona causes those around him to gravitate to him and has turned him into a leader during the team's winter workouts despite him only being a freshman.

Garcia has all the physical tools to succeed as a quarterback in the SEC, but the biggest question this year will be: does he have a firm command of Spurrier's complex offense?

"I've been trying to look over (the playbook) every night, and so far I've been doing that. Hopefully I'll be ready for this year, and I think I will be."

While last spring was marred with bad publicity for Garcia, this one began with some good news for the dual-threat quarterback. Spurrier announced there would be some changes to his offense. While he revolutioned college football with his "Fun 'n Gun" offense at Florida, the mark of a truly great coach is the ability to make tweaks and changes as modern offenses and defenses change.

Spurrier's offense will always feature the passing game he is famous for, but a three-year trend of his offensive line not consistently protecting his quarterbacks has led Spurrier to add some plays to the "Cock 'n Fire" playbook.

Spurrier first saw what a mobile quarterback could do in his offense during the 2006 season when the fleet of foot Syvelle Newton was put behind center out of necessity. Newton's ability to buy time with his feet while also picking up four or five yards on plays where nothing else was open might have piqued the Head Ball Coach's interest. While Spurrier has always coveted a QB who can move around in the pocket and make plays, the value of a player who can run and throw had just gone up in Spurrier's mind.

Incoming freshman quarterback Aramis Hilary may have something to say about it in the fall, but for now Garcia holds the distinct advantage of being the most athletic quarterback on USC's roster entering spring ball. He spent most of last season on the scout team emulating the athletic quarterbacks of opposing teams the USC defense had to face.

Garcia understands what an offense molded to his strengths could mean for his chances to play a lot this season.

"I'm definitely excited about that. I'm looking forward to that opportunity and that's an opportunity for me to get on the field," Garcia said. "That's all I'm looking for, just an opportunity, and hopefully I can hold onto it and just go with it."

The fact Spurrier is tweaking his offense is no secret, but as far as any details into the Head Ball Coach's exact plans, if Garcia knows them he's not tipping his hand.

"I don't know, yet. I haven't heard anything, so I'm as clueless as you guys right now."

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