Spring Storylines: A Battle at Quarterback
When Steve Spurrier took the reins of the Gamecock offense in 2005, the Head Ball Coach really didn't have much of a decision to make as to who his starting quarterback would be. Sure, Spurrier used the motivational tactic of announcing walk-on quarterback Brett Nichols as his first string QB. And dual-threat QB Antonio Heffner showed some big-play potential in the spring game, but he wasn't really the type QB Spurrier was looking for. And Mike Rathe could have made things interesting and made a legitimate run for the starting job, but the NCAA denied his appeal for another year of eligibility.
For all intents and purposes, naming Mitchell the starter was the only thing Spurrier could do. And for all the heat the former Gamecock QB took from the fans and the media, Mitchell did things few Gamecocks had done before him. Like him or not, Mitchell was Spurrier's go-to-guy, and when all else failed Mitchell was the guy Spurrier wanted behind center.
Now, in his fourth year at USC, Spurrier has the task of selecting a new starting quarterback to replace Mitchell. Luckily for Spurrier, this time, he has a choice.
Here is the pre-spring quarterback depth chart recently released by USC:
QB 7 Chris Smelley (6-2, 216, So.*)
6 Tommy Beecher (6-2, 227, Jr.*)
5 Stephen Garcia (6-2, 221, Fr.-RS)
As you can see, rising redshirt sophomore Chris Smelley is deservedly listed as the first string quarterback entering spring practice. The heady signal-call originally signed with South Carolina in the class of 2006 and chose the Gamecocks over offers from Louisville, Mississippi, NC State, Tennessee, LSU, and Oregon. Smelley's record-setting prep career saw him break the Alabama High School record for touchdown passes in a season with 59 and in a career with 134.
Smelley played early in the 2006 season, but received a medical hardship and redshirted after injuring his heel and sitting out the rest of the season. As a redshirt freshman in 2007, he became the first redshirt freshman quarterback to start the opening game of the year since Todd Ellis in the 1986 season. Smelley would go on to start six games on the year and post a 4-2 record as starter. After an upset loss to Vanderbilt and a shaky first half at Tennessee, Smelley gave way to Mitchell for the rest of the season. Before that Smelley completed 58.6 percent of his passes and threw nine touchdowns leading the Gamecocks to a No. 6 national ranking and 6-1 record.
While some have already written Smelley off due to him losing the job in the latter part of the season, it is important to remember he was still just a freshman. Smelley is smart, accurate, and level-headed. All of these things are important in a Spurrier quarterback. Smelley also has the most game-day experience of any of USC's quarterbacks, something that can't be overlooked in Spurrier's system. While the extra plays Spurrier is adding to his offense may favor Stephen Garcia some, Smelley is athletic in his own right and can move around in the pocket the way Spurrier wants his QB's to. The Tuscaloosa native may have his work cut out on him to win this battle, but Smelley is not listed as the first string guy for nothing and could just as easily exit the spring still in first place.
The least talked about of the three quarterbacks competing for the starting spot, Tommy Beecher enters the spring listed as the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart. It would surprise many if Beecher exited the spring as the first string QB, but crazier things have happened, and Spurrier has been known in the past for doing things with his quarterbacks that no one expected. Beecher signed with the Gamecocks as part of Spurrier's inaugural class and was the Head Ball Coach's first QB commitment with USC.
Beecher has looked solid in spot duty during his career, completing 16-of-25 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns. The rising redshirt junior has the distinct advantage of being in Spurrier's system the longest, and as a student of the game and possible future coach, he may know the system better than even Smelley. The Concord, NC native's arm strength is underrated, and if Beecher could hit his targets more consistently, he could make his case for being the starter.
Highly-touted redshirt freshman Stephen Garcia will get his first real chance to show what he can do running the offense this spring. Garcia enrolled at USC last January, but legal trouble kept him out of the quarterback hunt that spring. The former four-star prospect is back with a year in the program under his belt and now seems more ready to buckle down and lead this team.
It will be important for Gamecock fans to remember that Garcia will make some mistakes early and that he is still a freshman. The Tampa, Fl native is the most physically talented QB on the USC roster, but he will also have to display decision-making ability and touch on his throws to have any chance of taking the No. 1 spot. Garcia is a natural leader on the field and off, and has the type personality that people gravitate towards. Despite his youth, if Garcia can show a strong command for the complex Spurrier offense, he could be too much for Beecher or Smelley to hold off.
It would be really easy if one of the quarterbacks comes out and establishes himself as a clear No. 1, but don't look for that to be the case. This will be a long, up-and-down, competition that will likely feature multiple twists and turns. All three quarterbacks will likely have good days and bad ones, and all will likely experience time as the first stringer.
Don't be surprised if this one extends past spring practice and into pre-season fall practice.
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