Spring wrap-up: Quarterback

The battle at quarterback was one of the most watched storylines for the Gamecocks this spring. With an experienced sophomore, a long-haired, strong-armed youngster, and an emerging underdog, it contained all the ingredients for a drama-filled spring with plenty of twists and turns. Now after the climactic surprise finish, GamecockAnthem.com breaks down the quarterback spot following the spring.


Beecher's the starter - or is he?

Shortly after the conclusion of spring practice, Steve Spurrier announced Tommy Beecher as the team's first string quarterback. The dark horse entering spring practice, no one could have predicted the Concord native would end up being Spurrier's no. 1 guy.

Always the underrated player, Beecher joined the Gamecocks as a two-star prospect with offers from just South Carolina and Richmond. As a backup for his entire career Beecher has struggled to find significant minutes behind quarterbacks like Blake Mitchell, Syvelle Newton, and Chris Smelley, and he has thrown just 25 passes — completing 16 of them. Truth be told, most believed Beecher would never see the field in situations other than the occasional mop-up duty, and most thought the only thing keeping the 6'2" signal-caller from transferring out of the program was a desire to coach one day.

So with all that said, what has Beecher done to draw the support of Spurrier? The first thing Beecher has going for him is his quick decision-making. There are not many things Steve Spurrier hates more than having the right play call on against a particular defense and seeing his quarterback drop back, stand in the pocket, and deliver the ball to the right spot, too late. The Spurrier offense is built on timing, making it a proverbial double-edged sword. When the offense is clicking and the quarterbacks are making quick decisions, it can be almost impossible to stop. By the same token, when the QB's deliver the ball late the offense seems to sputter to a halt. That's not to say Beecher's quick decisions are always the correct, quick decisions, but his ability to take his drop, read the defense, and get the ball out undoubtedly pleases Spurrier.

With all the talk prior to spring practice of Stephen Garcia being a running threat in Spurrier's slightly revamped offense, Beecher has shown surprising quickness and escapability from the pocket. The junior QB also has one of the strongest arms on the team and possesses more upside than he was originally given credit for.

The key for Beecher to hold onto his first string spot will be to continue to get better in the offseason. Spurrier talked after the Garnet and Black spring game about the fact that the current quarterbacks don't really know what it takes to be a big-time player. Beecher will need to take his newly-found starting job by the reins and use it as an opportunity to gain respect from his teammates. Beecher will also have to continue to learn the offense and work on making smarter decisions. While he showed no hesitation to throw downfield in practice, he did not always make smart decisions and usually had two or three throws that he would've liked to have back. With that said, Beecher is closer at this point to being the starting quarterback at the University of South Carolina than he ever has been before, and with a productive summer very well could be the no. 1 signal-caller in the Thursday night opener against NC State.


Smelley: The forgotten man?

Beecher may be the talk of Gamecock Nation, but it is important to remember Smelley is still the same quarterback who started six games last year, leading the team to a 4-2 record while completing 92-of-162 passes for 1,176 yards and nine touchdowns. That's not to dismiss the fact Smelley did have an awful spring game in which he went 13-for-30 for 219 yards and five interceptions. And Spurrier did say on his Gamecock Club tour that Beecher had the better overall spring. But Smelley was still the more consistent quarterback throughout the spring practices, and the times when the offense looked its absolute best was with the Tuscaloosa, Ala. native under center.

Smelley has generally been the more accurate of the two quarterbacks and seemed to make the right decision more often than Beecher, though his numbers during the first half of the spring game obviously don't support that. While Beecher very well could be the starter game one, at this point Spurrier probably doesn't even truly know whether Beecher or Smelley will prevail as the starter — and for that matter how long they can keep the job.

The fact of the matter is by announcing Beecher as the starter, Spurrier not only sent the message to Beecher that he could realistically win the starting job, but also sent a firm message to Smelley that he needed to work even harder to be his quarterback.

Smelley is now faced with the decision to either sit back and continue doing what he has been doing, or show Spurrier he absolutely wants to be the starting quarterback. That is not to say Smelley hasn't worked hard, or isn't putting in the necessary off-the-field time. It just means that Spurrier expects greatness out of his quarterbacks, and neither player knows right now what that takes. Smelley may have thrown five picks, but Beecher was right behind him with three of his own, so it could even be argued that Beecher won the job by default. By announcing Beecher as the guy, Spurrier is not only testing Smelley's true work ethic, but is testing his psyche and seeing if he can effectively deal with adversity.

If Smelley shows he is the leader of the team, runs the passing sessions during the summer, and continues to work on making quick, confident decisions he will be under center when the Gamecocks face off with the Wolfpack, not Beecher.


The Stephen Garcia Factor

Ask Steve Spurrier as a member of the media what he thinks of Stephen Garcia's chances to contribute this year, and he is more likely to tell you how incoming freshman Aramis Hillary loves the game of football than he is to actually talk about the free-spirited gunslinger from Florida. It's no secret by now that Garcia missed the majority of his second spring in a row, and is now in danger of never playing a snap at South Carolina.

At this point no one, not even Garcia, truly knows what is going to happen next. Garcia may have as much raw, natural talent as any quarterback to ever wear the Garnet and Black, but all of that means nothing if he can't do what it takes off the field to fully live up to that potential. Early in practice Garcia's talent was evident. Showing better-than-average touch and as-advertised arm strength, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Spurrier would have named Garcia starting QB going into the summer had he done his part and went through the entire spring session.

But it is what it is, and sorry for the clichés, but right now the ball is in Garcia's court. There is still time for Garcia to turn his life around and one day be the starting QB. It is unrealistic to think Garcia could be the starter opening day, but if he stays out of trouble there's always the chance he could play a big factor in the QB rotation down the stretch of the season.


Will Hillary play?

As mentioned earlier, Spurrier is truly impressed with Hillary and believes his work ethic and leadership could one day make him a great quarterback at USC. While it's almost never good for a true freshman QB to play in the SEC, Hillary's athleticism make him a candidate to get some game action in a package designed around his talent. Despite that, it would be better for all parties if Hillary can spend a year in the system soaking up everything he can under Spurrier and really have a chance to make a run at the starting job a few years from now as a redshirt sophomore rather than a junior. You never know with the Head Ball Coach at the helm, though.

If Garcia does what he needs to do and comes back, then all bets are off and Hillary definitely redshirts.

Incoming freshman Reid McCollum will be the fifth scholarship quarterback this fall, and will definitely redshirt.


The Conclusion

When Spurrier is making the decision regarding a team's quarterback, the only thing that is ever for sure, is that nothing is for sure. At this point, Beecher being named the no. 1 quarterback only means that Beecher has a realistic chance to win the job, not that he's a lock to do so. Smelley could have a good summer and win the job back from Beecher in August, but we won't know for sure until the fall.

No matter what QB ends up winning the job for the first game, with Spurrier making the call you can bet there is a better chance they will give way to another quarterback at some point during the season than there is they will start every single game.


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