AS UNFAMILIAR A territory as Steve Spurrier was wading into, he appeared pretty comfortable Monday in talking about the prospect of having a starting quarterback this season whom he likes.
Spurrier likes the way Connor Shaw plays. He likes the way Shaw behaves off the field. He likes the idea of Shaw leading his team, perhaps to another SEC East championship and perhaps an SEC title.
Spurrier does not normally talk that way about his quarterbacks. He has a history of expecting his quarterback to be perfect on the first day of practice and improve every day thereafter. If not, he lets everyone know.
Yet this is how Spurrier responded to a reporter’s question about Shaw at his news conference Monday, three days before USC’s season-opener at Vanderbilt:
“Connor, he works at it. He does what you would like quarterbacks to do on the field, off the field and so forth. I think the players have a lot of confidence in him. He’s a good player. He’s a very good quarterback who we hope is going to turn into a really great one, an outstanding one. We’ll see how it all plays out.”
It is what you expect to hear from college football coaches when they talk about their amateur athletes. It is not what we have come to expect to hear from Spurrier. In this case, he omitted the obligatory conjunctive clause. He failed to insert a qualifying sentence.
You need to understand a little Spurrier history to appreciate the affection he has shown Shaw this preseason.
Spurrier’s feuds with quarterbacks date to his assistant coaching days at Duke, when his public bouts with Ben Bennett became legendary. Spurrier always has liked the idea of using quarterbacks much like baseball managers use pitchers — with one eye on the mound and the other on the bullpen.
It helps explain how in 22 seasons as a college head coach, only four quarterbacks (covering seven seasons) have gone wire to wire as a starter in a single season. Anthony Dilweg did it at Duke (1988), Shane Matthews pulled off the trifecta at Florida from 1990 through 1992, Danny Wuerffel did it at Florida during the Gators’ national championship season of 1996, and, amazingly enough, Stephen Garcia did it in 2009 and 2010 at USC.
Spurrier had high praise for Matthews throughout his career and for Wuerffel during his Heisman Trophy-winning season. Not so much for Garcia, who felt the bite of Spurrier’s tongue because his poor on-field decisions were only surpassed by his bad off-field behavior.
No secret here, Spurrier always has had what they call in baseball parlance “a quick hook.”
That was fine when he coached at Duke and at Florida because he could pretty much plug in anyone with a right arm and his offenses would continue to click on all cylinders. In 1989 at Duke, Dave Brown made his first career start at Wake Forest and passed for 444 yards and four touchdowns. In 1995 at Florida, Spurrier inserted Eric Kresser on a whim for Wuerffel against Northern Illinois. Kresser passed for a school-record 458 yards and six touchdowns.
It has not worked so well at USC, where Spurrier’s offense no longer is unstoppable like it was at Duke and Florida. Spurrier found that out in his first USC season (2005) when Antonio Heffner stepped in for an injured Blake Mitchell at Auburn with disastrous results in a 48-7 loss.
Three seasons later, Spurrier touted Tommy Beecher as his answer at quarterback throughout the offseason. Beecher went out with an injury in the first half of the season-opener against N.C. State and never started again.
Then there was Spurrier’s decision to start the untested Shaw over the veteran Garcia in the season-opener a year ago against East Carolina in Charlotte. After spotting East Carolina a 17-0 lead, Garcia came off the bench to rescue USC in a 56-37 victory.
Garcia, of course, could not complete the season as the starter because he was booted off the team after five games. Shaw performed admirably the rest of the way by completing 65 percent of his passes, throwing for 1,448 yards and rushing for another 525.
Shaw, now a junior, is established as USC’s quarterback for this season. And Spurrier clearly has thrown his support behind Shaw.
Shaw is a dual-threat quarterback that fits perfectly into USC’s zone-read offense. It could be that Spurrier has changed his ways and recognizes the value of speaking in positive terms about his quarterback. It could also be that Spurrier recognizes he does not have much behind Shaw. Dylan Thompson is next in line, and he has attempted two passes in his four-game career.
Perhaps it is a combination of all three reasons that has Spurrier singing Shaw’s praises. Whatever the reason — or reasons — it is downright refreshing to hear.
Watch commentaries by Morris Mondays at 6 and 11 p.m. on ABC Columbia News (WOLO-TV)