After an up-and-down football career at South Carolina, Chris Smelley is going home to try another sport at another SEC school.
The Gamecocks’ third-year quarterback is transferring to Alabama to play baseball for his hometown Crimson Tide. But Smelley did not rule the possibility of playing football at Alabama, where his younger brother, Brad, is a freshman tight end.
“I’m going to keep all my options open, really. I don’t want to close any doors,” Smelley said Friday when reached by phone. “But I’m definitely going to be playing baseball.”
Smelley, an all-state catcher at American Christian Academy in Tuscaloosa, came to USC planning to play both sports his final two or three years. But after struggling to hold on to the starting quarterback job, Smelley wanted a fresh start.
“Through the circumstances and stuff that’s happened, I felt it would be best to play baseball elsewhere,” he said.
Smelley and his father met with USC coach Steve Spurrier on Friday morning in Columbia. Though Smelley’s scholarship release mentioned only baseball, Smelley said Spurrier was aware he might also play football.
Smelley is eligible to play baseball this season at Alabama. If he lands a roster spot, he could be the rare SEC player to see action in two sports at two conference schools in the same academic year.
Spurrier was supportive of the decision.
“I understand that football wasn’t going as well as he’d hoped. And he is a good baseball player,” Spurrier said. “At one time he thought about trying to play both here, but it was just too time constraining. So we wish him the best. He’s a good kid (with) good character, integrity.”
After redshirting in 2006, Smelley won his first four starts the following year, equaling Ron Bass and Steve Taneyhill for the best start by a Gamecocks quarterback.
The redshirt sophomore was 9-6 in 15 career starts, including a 5-4 mark this past season. But Smelley battled inconsistency while sharing time with Stephen Garcia in 2008, finishing with more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (14).
A week after being named the SEC player of the week after throwing for a career-high 327 yards and three touchdowns in a win at Mississippi, an ineffective Smelley was benched in the second half at Kentucky.
Named the starter for the Clemson game, Smelley responded by tossing four interceptions, including three in the first half that led to Tiger touchdowns in the 31-14 defeat.
For his career, Smelley completed 56.4 percent of his passes for 3,210 yards and 23 touchdowns with 22 interceptions. He ranks in the top 10 on USC’s all-time list in completions (270), attempts (479), completion percentage and passing touchdowns (22).
“I had a lot of great times, some great games, some big wins. Playing for the Gamecocks is something I’ll never forget, I’ve got a ton of lifelong friends I made,” Smelley said.
“Through the good and the bad, I was able to learn as a person and mature, and it definitely will help carry me throughout life.”
Smelley’s departure leaves the Gamecocks with three scholarship quarterbacks, only one of whom has taken a snap in a game.
Redshirt freshman Stephen Garcia was 1-2 in three starts this past season. Named the starter for the Outback Bowl in his Tampa hometown, Garcia had turnovers on the Gamecocks’ first four possessions and gave way to Smelley in the second half.
Spurrier said he might look for another quarterback before signing day next month. Otherwise, he will give freshmen Reid McCollum and Aramis Hillary a look in spring practice.
But Garcia figures to get the bulk of the work after being suspended the past two springs.
“He needs a full spring practice,” Spurrier said. “He needs 1,000 snaps and he’s going to get about that many this spring, barring injury.”
As for Smelley, he would have to sit out next season if he wanted to play football again. But he would be eligible in 2010, when the Crimson Tide comes to Columbia.
“That’s a long ways down the road,” he said. “It’d have to be a lot happen between now and then.”