At the end of South Carolina’s first spring practice, a group of reporters crowded around Gamecocks quarterback Chris Smelley ... at least until Stephen Garcia walked off the field.
As most of the media left and formed a semi-circle around Garcia, Smelley stood 10 yards away with the three reporters who remained. Smelley, a redshirt sophomore from Tuscaloosa, Ala., started half of USC’s 12 games last season, won four of them, and entered the spring atop the depth chart.
But Smelley seems to be working in the shadows of Garcia, the freshman from Tampa who arrived last year with enough hype to fill the bed of his oversized pickup.
“I understand it,” Smelley said Friday. “But I feel like I’ve gotten in there and played pretty well at times. I’m just hoping to limit the mistakes that I had last year and learn a lot from last year. Hopefully, I’ll be a much better quarterback this year.”
Smelley completed 56 percent of his passes in 2007 for 1,176 yards, with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. The right-hander spearheaded a three-game winning streak that gave the Gamecocks a 6-1 record and No. 6 national ranking in mid-October.
But Smelley’s three interceptions in losses to Vanderbilt and Tennessee prompted USC coach Steve Spurrier to go with Blake Mitchell for the final three games, all losses.
There were also concerns about Smelley’s arm strength, although he might have been trying to shoulder the load with a sore shoulder.
Smelley underwent surgery in January to remove part of the bone from his throwing shoulder. Smelley was injured on a sack during the first series in the Louisiana-Lafayette opener. It bothered him the rest of the year.
“It definitely bugged me,” he said. “I’m not going to make excuses for the way I played. I didn’t play well at times, good shoulder or bad shoulder. But I definitely wasn’t full speed last season.”
Ever the quarterback critic, Spurrier noted that Smelley was injured on a play when he failed to check to a three-step drop against a blitz.
Asked whether the injury affected Smelley’s arm strength, Spurrier said; “It may have bothered him a little bit. He threw a lot of good ones last year.”
Smelley passed for a career-high 279 yards against Mississippi State on his 21st birthday. He led USC to a 38-23 victory against No. 8 Kentucky, and tossed three touchdowns in a victory at North Carolina the following week.
Smelley, who is not yet 100 percent, planned to limit his throws during Friday’s practice. Even in shorts and helmets, however, Smelley’s competitive drive kicked in.
“We’ve got a lot of great quarterbacks out here. So I didn’t want to pull myself out early and let everybody else get the reps,” he said.
Smelley said the focus on Garcia does not bother him.
“He’s had a lot of attention coming out of high school and then when he first got here. It hasn’t all been good,” said Smelley, referring to Garcia’s two arrests last year. “But he’s gotten better. He’s matured.”
Smelley is not interested in winning a popularity contest among media and fans, saying the only group he wants to impress is Spurrier and his staff.
“You’ve just got to come out here every day and give everything you’ve got. You can’t let anybody else outwork you,” he said. “You’ve got to get here early and leave late, and become the best quarterback you can be.”
Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.