TO HAVE quarterback Connor Shaw relegated to the sideline Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium would be a blessing in disguise for the South Carolina football team. By not playing, Shaw will have time for his injured shoulder to heal. More important, USC can develop a backup quarterback.
Of course, USC runs the risk of losing to East Carolina. But the double reward of Shaw healing for the more difficult part of USC’s schedule and Dylan Thompson getting a full game of snaps at quarterback far outweigh that risk.
The bigger risk long range for USC is to play an entire season with a backup quarterback virtually void of game experience. For many teams, that is not an issue. For USC, which utilizes Shaw more as a runner than a passer, developing a game-proven backup should be a primary concern.
USC entered this season operating with a formula that does not equate. USC wants Shaw to run the ball out of the read-option attack anywhere from 10 to 15 times a game, increasing the chances of him getting injured every time he takes off down field.
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Shaw is a tremendous runner. He was USC’s second-leading rusher a season ago with 525 yards, and managed 92 yards on the ground in the Gamecocks’ season-opening victory against Vanderbilt.
This is a new era of college football, one in which quarterbacks often are asked to use their feet as much as their throwing arm. But most run-first quarterbacks these days are the size of tight ends. At 6-foot-1 and 207 pounds, Shaw is no Tim Tebow or Cam Newton, both of whom were more likely to run over instead of around opponents during their days at Florida and Auburn, respectively.
Shaw is an injury waiting to happen, no matter how well Steve Spurrier teaches him to dive to the ground — head first — in the open field. The more Shaw runs the ball, the greater chance of an injury, even a fluke injury as was case at Vanderbilt when Shaw’s slide met a defender’s knee.
So, if you are going to use your quarterback that way, you better have a backup ready at a moment’s notice. That is the second part of USC’s formula that does not equate.
Spurrier spoke highly of Thompson throughout the preseason, just as he did an inexperienced Shaw prior to the 2011 season. There still is no substitute for experience, as Spurrier found out with Shaw in last season’s opener against ECU. The Gamecocks trailed 17-0 before a shell-shocked Shaw was sent to the sideline.
The same could be said of Thompson, a redshirt sophomore who has thrown five passes in his career. Spurrier said Thompson needs a shot of confidence, which is understandable since the coaching staff did the quarterback no favors when he entered the game against Vanderbilt last week.
Instead of letting Thompson get comfortable at the controls, USC immediately asked him to run the ball and to throw a pass at the end of the first half. In the two series he played in the second half, Thompson carried the ball twice for 11 yards, threw two incomplete passes and was sacked twice for losses totaling 20 yards.
Marcus Lattimore, USC’s Heisman Trophy candidate at running back, never touched the ball when Thompson was in the game.
Compare that to what Clemson did with backup quarterback Cole Stoudt in its win Saturday against Auburn. The inexperienced Stoudt replaced Tajh Boyd on two plays in the first half when Boyd was sentenced to the sideline when his helmet popped off. Stoudt called two more plays in the second half to give Boyd a blow. On all four plays, Stoudt handed the ball to a running back.
Spurrier can afford to let Thompson get his feet wet against East Carolina in the same manner. He could probably hand the ball off to running backs on most plays and call for occasional safe, low-risk passes from Thompson.
Saturday’s game also might give Spurrier the chance to trot Bruce Ellington out in the Wildcat formation. Ellington ran the offense from that set on several occasions a season ago with little success. If not Ellington, perhaps it is time to look at freshman sensation Shaq Roland in the Wildcat formation.
Whatever the option, for the long run against SEC competition, USC cannot afford to pass up an opportunity on Saturday — and perhaps the following week against UAB — to develop a backup quarterback.
The reward for having a capable, and experienced, backup for the remainder of the season far outweighs the risk of losing to East Carolina.