As South Carolina’s spring game was winding down, Steve Spurrier was admonishing his starting quarterback on the sideline.
This is nothing new. The subject, though, was a first for Spurrier, who was worried junior Connor Shaw’s close-cropped hair would result in a scorched head in the April sun.
“He finally put a hat on during the spring game,” Spurrier said. “I said, ‘I’m glad to see you got that hat on,’ because he skins (his hair) down pretty much close to bald. He’s probably the first completely crew cut quarterback that I have coached, come to think of it. Usually most guys have a little bit of hair up there, but he shaves his right on down to just about nothing.
“He’s definitely a hat guy.”
After four years of urging quarterback Stephen Garcia to get a haircut, among other things, Spurrier enters the 2012 season with a quarterback whose hairstyle and Friday night social scene would fit snugly in the 1950s.
“He’s not going to try to be the flashiest dancer during the dance,” Spurrier said of Shaw. “He’s not going to be the life of the party. To me, he gets his thrills in life by trying to be a good student and by competing, by trying to be a good quarterback.”
Spurrier refers to Shaw supplanting Garcia last year as “the change,” almost as if the words should be capitalized.
“We had full confidence in Connor when we made the change,” he said. “It was time to make the change, and it obviously turned out to be a (big) part of our year, I think.”
One week after that change came another. Garcia was dismissed from the team after failing a substance test. After pushing quarterbacks with the threat of a replacement most of his career, Spurrier believes the lack of that threat helped Shaw blossom.
“Stephen getting in trouble maybe just cleared the air,” Spurrier said. “(Shaw) wasn’t sitting over there on the bench thinking, ‘Well if I go bad, he is coming in.’ It usually helps a quarterback whenhe knows it’s all his. You’d like to say that when you have a quarterback who is clearly your best player. You can tell him, ‘It’s your game.’
"He knew it was his game, every one of them from there on out.”
Shaw still is not as polished a passer as Garcia was, but the Gamecocks seemed to respond to a steadier hand on the wheel, winning seven of the final eight games with Shaw at the helm.
Shaw’s not willing to speculate on his leadership style vs. Garcia’s, but he’s not blind to the differences.
“It’s totally two different persons,” Shaw said. “I think you need someone at quarterback to set the right example. I think a lot of people believe that. I don’t know, maybe (it made a difference).”
Serious to the brink of stern, Shaw doesn’t have anything negative to say about Garcia’s free-wheeling reign.
“I can’t control any of that. The only thing I can control is myself,” he said. “I left personal issues (behind) when we walked on the football field.”
Shaw walked on to the field before Garcia in 2011, earning the right to start the season-opener against East Carolina in Charlotte. It was a disaster. Shaw completed 3-of-9 passes for 21 yards, fumbled to end the only promising drive he presided over and left the game with South Carolina trailing 17-0.
“I didn’t feel as comfortable going into that game and that’s understandable,” he said. “There were some things I could have handled a little bit differently. There are some better reads I could have made. It didn’t start out very well. We had a couple drops, but you know”
Garcia replaced Shaw and led a come-from-behind win that seemingly put an end to the quarterback competition. Shaw’s start was so bad there were concerns outside the program — and, according to sources, inside the program — it would be the end of his chances to ever earn the starting job for the Gamecocks. Spurrier never had those thoughts, he said.
“No, no, no to some of those guys maybe, but we watch him every day in practice,” he said. “We had complete confidence that he would play well. That’s why he started the season last year. Usually if they perform pretty well in practice, they have a good chance of doing it in games.”
Shaw did not believe his last chance was gone.
“Not necessarily,” he said. “It was sour after that first game, but you just have to learn from your mistakes. I learned from my mistakes, and I got my opportunity later in the season and I took advantage of it.”
When Spurrier replaced an ineffective Garcia prior to the Kentucky game, Shaw was much more ready than he had been two months before. He completed 26-of-39 passes for 311 yards and four touchdowns and thanked Spurrier afterward for giving him a second chance.
“He was ready to go into the East Carolina game, but game experience, you can’t beat that,” senior quarterback Seth Strickland said. “You don’t think, you just play. Somebody who is playing with no hesitation is 10 times better than somebody who is out there thinking.”
Shaw’s ability to read defenses has been his biggest improvement, center T.J. Johnson said.
“I think he’s starting to see some of the same stuff over and over again so I think he’s going to be better for it,” Johnson said. “We knew that he was ready (for the Kentucky game) and we knew he was going to succeed after that.”
In the final three games of last season, Shaw completed 75 percent of his passes (41-of-55) for 657 yards, eight touchdowns and one interception
“Playing quarterback is all about playing,” Gamecocks quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus said. “With every snap he takes, he gets better.”
Shaw, who dates his high school girlfriend and rarely darkens the door of any of Columbia’s night-time hotspots, is diligent on the practice field and in the meeting room, Mangus said.
“He’s a good player who can juke a guy and make something happen. We’re just working on his passing,” Spurrier said. “He wants to be a really, really good player. He wants to be an outstanding quarterback, and he has proven to be a winner.”
The difference between the Shaw who entered the 2011 season and the one who will enter the 2012 season is “night and day,” Shaw said. It has been a different offseason, too, for the Gamecocks, who, for the first time in the Spurrier era, will head into this season with no question who the starting quarterback will be.
“Last year, it was all spring, all summer, even the start of fall, they didn’t have a solid quarterback. There was a big quarterback competition,” Shaw said. “I am still going to compete through fall camp and the season, but I think they have someone more as a catalyst on the offense.”
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