IF WE KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT SOUTH Carolina’s quarterback situation, it is that Steve Spurrier again can yank his starter at a moment’s notice. He has a capable backup to redshirt junior Stephen Garcia in freshman Connor Shaw.
But let’s not go overboard in heaping praise on Shaw at Garcia’s expense. Nearly all reports out of fall camp indicate Shaw is a hard worker. Coaches report he releases the ball quickly and is an excellent runner. He apparently is capable of operating USC’s offense.
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Unfortunately, Shaw has not taken a snap under center in a game. He never has played in front of 70,000 fans. He never has faced a pack of Georgia linebackers bearing down on him as he settles into the pocket. He is a freshman.
“In general, that’s a pretty easy assumption to make,” said G.A. Mangus, USC’s quarterbacks coach. “But I think I’ve also seen, as time’s gone on, you see more and more skilled young players playing all across America. … Sometimes, if they’re the best player, and typically that’s why they’re the best player, because they have that mentality that it doesn’t matter whether they’re 18 or 22.”
Still, freshmen do not have a grand history in the SEC. Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi never have turned to a freshman quarterback. Eric Ainge produced the best season for a freshman quarterback in the SEC when he led Tennessee to the East Division championship in 2004 by throwing for 1,452 yards and 17 touchdowns with nine interceptions.
Steve Tanneyhill won the favor of USC fans with his flair for the dramatic during his freshman season of 1992. But Tanneyhill’s numbers (seven touchdowns, six interceptions) were average, and the Gamecocks finished 5-6. You have to go back to Todd Ellis in 1986 to find a spectacular showing by a USC freshman quarterback. Ellis threw for 3,020 yards with 20 touchdowns and 22 interceptions, but that was prior to USC joining the SEC.
There have been no indications out of USC’s camp that Shaw is the next Ellis or Tanneyhill. What we have learned is that Shaw’s production in scrimmages has matched, if not surpassed, that of Garcia.
“He’s kind of got a knack. He’s got that ‘it’ factor I’ve talked about before, in terms of decision-making,” Mangus said of Shaw. “The most impressive thing that I see is his ability to make quick decisions at his age and at his inexperience.”
Where Garcia has an advantage on Shaw is in experience. He has taken plays from the sideline, stood in the pocket under pressure, thrown touchdown passes to win games and been through the grind of being a starting quarterback. Garcia has started 16 games at USC, including every one a season ago when he threw for 2,862 yards, 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
“I don’t think there’s any question,” Mangus said of Garcia’s edge in experience. “I’ve told him many times, that is why you expect him to play well and play like the veteran that he is. He’s got 13 starts from last year and however many before (three). Coming off that year, you would expect that to be an advantage.”
One would think it would take an exceptional preseason performance for a freshman to unseat a redshirt junior. There is precedent for such in the SEC. In 2006 at Georgia, freshman Matthew Stafford won the starting job over senior Joe Tereshinkski, who had played in all 13 games the previous season.
Georgia coaches never envisioned Tereshinski as their quarterback, and they recognized Stafford was a superstar in the making. Additionally, they were willing to exercise patience during what turned out to be a trying freshman season for the quarterback. Georgia split its eight SEC games that season as Stafford passed for 1,749 yards and seven touchdowns with 13 interceptions. He developed over the following three seasons into the first selection in the NFL draft.
Although Shaw might represent the future of USC football, it is difficult to believe Spurrier is willing to suffer through a season of mistakes that will be made by a freshman quarterback. Not when he has an experienced quarterback who has flashed signs of brilliance during his checkered career, and not when he fields a team capable of challenging for the SEC East championship.
Still, it should not surprise anyone if Spurrier starts Shaw on Thursday against Southern Mississippi. This is the same coach who touted Tommy Beecher as his top quarterback leading into the 2008 season. Beecher started the opener, then signaled plays to Garcia and Chris Smelley the rest of the way.
Even if Shaw starts, you have to believe Garcia is going to get the bulk of snaps this season, barring injury. Mangus said who starts is irrelevant. Rather, it will matter who finishes — and who gives USC the best chance to win throughout the course of an entire game and season.
What Shaw’s progress in the spring and fall has created for Spurrier is a viable backup option to Garcia. It pained Spurrier greatly a season ago to have only one capable quarterback. Spurrier always has needed a reliable backup in case his starter falters.
That likely is what this season’s quarterback situation is all about. Garcia is the guy. He gives USC the best chance to win games, perhaps enough to capture the ever-elusive SEC East championship. Shaw should serve as a nice backup who can be worked into the rotation on a game-by-game basis.
USC fans only can hope that is the way Spurrier approaches this season. If not, by midseason, USC again will be saying, “Wait ’til next year.”