Stephen Garcia has run his way to the top of South Carolina’s depth chart.
A day after watching Garcia rush for a team-high 86 yards in a 26-13 win against Alabama-Birmingham, Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said Garcia likely will make his first career start this week at Mississippi.
It has been a quick ascension for Garcia, the redshirt freshman who did not rejoin the team until Aug. 1 following a four-month suspension. Garcia played three snaps against Georgia on Sept. 14 before Spurrier took the reins off the Tampa-area native against UAB.
Garcia responded with the best rushing night by a Gamecocks quarterback in six years to move past Chris Smelley for the starting spot.
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“I think we’ve got to give Stephen Garcia every opportunity to play,” Spurrier said Sunday. “I think his ability to run out of the pocket adds an extra dimension to our offense. We’ll see if we can’t try to teach him a little bit where to throw the ball.”
Garcia completed 13 of 20 passes for 131 yards and a touchdown against a Blazers’ defense that was ranked near the bottom nationally against the pass. Garcia was picked off once when he underthrew Joe Hills on a deep route and had another interception wiped out by a pass interference penalty.
Garcia was sacked once and finished with 18 carries, more than half of which were scramble plays.
“Stephen Garcia did a lot of good things. He ran out of there a little too quickly at times. Other times he made good decisions to run out of there,” Spurrier said. “The more he plays, hopefully the more he can learn when to hang in, when to go.”
Garcia’s longest completion was a 22-yarder to Barnes on a fade route in the first half. But the right-hander believes the downfield passing game will improve with increased reps and better timing with his receivers.
“Those are just plays that we’ll get used to each other — chemistry — and we’ll be all right,” he said.
But it appears the Gamecocks will be without their top receiver for another week. Spurrier expects All-SEC senior Kenny McKinley to miss his fourth consecutive game with a right hamstring injury.
Spurrier said he might talk to McKinley, who began the season in range of all of USC’s major receiving records, about a medical redshirt if the hamstring does not improve soon. McKinley has not played since the first quarter of a 24-17 loss at Vanderbilt on Sept. 4.
“If he isn’t back within a week or two, that’s what we should do,” Spurrier said of the redshirt possibility. “I haven’t really talked to him about it. When it occurred, it was only the second game of the year. So we thought he’d be back hopefully by now. ... I’ll tell you what, we could use him right now.”
Spurrier said he has not seen McKinley do anything other than ride the stationary bike.
“The trainers just say he’s not ready. They don’t know when he’s going to be able to run any more than we do,” Spurrier said. “He’s getting treatment. That’s basically all you can do for a pulled muscle.”
In the meantime, Garcia will try to lead the Gamecocks to their first SEC win against a defense he should recognize. Mississippi defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix held the same post at USC last year when Garcia ran the scout-team offense.
Spurrier and a couple of his assistants called Nix on Saturday to congratulate him on the Rebels’ win at Florida. Spurrier said Mississippi is disguising its coverages better than USC did at the end of last season.
“I think we disguised a lot better early in the year. But then everybody was running on us, so there probably wasn’t a whole lot of need to disguise too much toward the end of last year,” Spurrier said.
Ellis Johnson, who recruited Nix to Southern Miss nearly 20 years ago, said his predecessor probably has had this game circled.
“Ty’s probably been working overtime for a lot of weeks. I’m sure he’d love to win this game, beat South Carolina,” Johnson said. “But I don’t know if he carries any kind of grudge or anything like that.”
Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.