Stephen Garcia is on the verge of becoming the first South Carolina quarterback to start every regular-season game in Steve Spurrier's five years in Columbia. But that does not mean the right-hander from Tampa has made it through unscathed.
Garcia has taken his lumps in his first full season as the starter - more than 30 of them.
Heading into Saturday's game against Clemson, Garcia has been sacked 33 times - more than any other SEC quarterback. And while Spurrier believes Garcia could have avoided half of those sacks, even the hard-to-please Spurrier concedes Garcia took a step forward this season and remains the Gamecocks' best option if they are going to make it to the SEC championship game under Spurrier's watch.
"Stephen is much improved, and he needs to continue improving if we're ever gonna win big around here," Spurrier said recently.
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Garcia, a redshirt sophomore who started three games in 2008 while sharing time with Chris Smelley, is the SEC's second-leading passer (237 yards a game) behind Arkansas' Ryan Mallett. He has completed 57 percent of his passes and is tied with Mallett for the conference lead with four 300-yard passing games.
Florida coach Urban Meyer, who sought out and complimented Garcia after the Gators' 24-14 win two weeks ago, said Garcia has a much better understanding of Spurrier's offense compared to last season.
"I felt like last year you could kind of rattle him with a change of coverages. This year I saw him do a much better job," Meyer said. "That's just experience. Obviously, he's going to be a fine player."
Playing behind what at times has been a makeshift offensive line, Garcia has taken some hits. He bruised his ribs in a win against Mississippi in September and limped around on a sore knee at the end of the Alabama game last month in Tuscaloosa.
But he has yet to miss a snap because of injury.
"He's a very tough guy. He has a lot of heart, and he never complains, even if he has to play 80 or 90 snaps," Gamecocks defensive end Cliff Matthews said. "There's been times when I thought he can't take no more. But every time he keeps getting back up."
"I don't think it's ever been an issue with Stephen that he lacked courage," said Todd Ellis, the ex-USC quarterback who is the team's play-by-play announcer.
But Spurrier said Garcia has brought much of the pain on himself.
"He's still gotta throw the ball away better. That's killed our running game, all the sacks we've taken," Spurrier said. "A lot of 'em he could've thrown away. I'd say half he could've thrown the ball away somewhere."
Realizing when to heave the ball four rows deep in the stands is part of the learning process for a player whose development was sidetracked by a couple of alcohol-related arrests early in his career.
Though Garcia, who will turn 22 in February, is about to begin his fourth year in the program, he missed all or most of his first two spring practices while suspended.
Garcia has a 7-7 record as a starter. With two years of eligibility remaining, Garcia is at a critical point in his career, according to Ellis.
"It is clear he can make every throw in the offense as good as anyone in the conference. And he's going to run better out of the pocket or on designed plays better than 10 of the 12 quarterbacks in the league," Ellis said.
What remains unclear is whether Garcia will invest the time and energy necessary to become a complete quarterback who can audible without assistance from the sideline, make the proper reads and deliver the ball to the right receiver.
"He needs to continue making the commitment to learn the game - learn how to play, learn how to audible and get out of a bad play and try to get into a good play," Spurrier said. "Just learn how to play. Take more time to study the game. He's doing much better, and he's got to continue striving to learn everything about playing quarterback."
If he does, Garcia could make a run at Ellis' career passing records - he is within 600 yards of Ellis' single-season mark of 3,206 yards - and carve out a spot in the school record books as the first quarterback to lead the Gamecocks to the SEC title game.
"I think he can do it," Matthews said. "He has the heart. He's a lot smarter, a lot (more) mature. It's just a matter of time."