Dylan Thompson’s redshirt sophomore season couldn’t have started much worse or ended much better.
The former Boiling Springs standout entered the season as South Carolina’s backup quarterback and was thrown into the fire during USC’s opener at Vanderbilt when starting quarterback Connor Shaw injured his shoulder in the second quarter.
Thompson played limited snaps during the second and third quarters, misfiring on all three pass attempts and twice being sacked.
It was hard for Thompson, who was passed up for third-string quarterback Seth Strickland in the fourth quarter when Shaw had to leave momentarily after re-injuring his shoulder.
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“I don’t want to say it was the worst situation ever, but it was different,” Thompson said. “I wasn’t comfortable. I don’t know why, I really don’t. I just couldn’t get comfortable in the game.”
USC coach Steve Spurrier said after the game that Thompson was struggling to the point that he felt he had to take him out of the game.
“We put Seth in because Dylan was struggling mightily,” Spurrier said. “I said, ‘Dylan we’re going backward every time you’re in there. We’re going to try something else.’ ”
Thompson felt that he was ready to play before the game, but it was tough once he stepped onto the field.
“I was confident and ready. The way it happened, I didn’t expect it to be like that. With somebody getting hurt, that being the reason you got to play, but that’s the way it happened and it kind of started there.”
In the week after the Vanderbilt game, those who doubted Thompson’s ability as a college quarterback had plenty of ammunition.
When he was signed out of high school, Thompson heard he’d never play quarterback for the Gamecocks, but he was determined to prove his doubters wrong. When the talk started back up after USC’s win over the Commodores, Thompson chose to get back to work.
“I kind of just go about my business. I knew I didn’t play well. I came back ready to go to work,” he said. “I wanted to see what went wrong and learn from it.”
Thompson didn’t have to wait long for his next shot. Shaw was ruled out with an injury for USC’s game the next week against East Carolina, and Thompson was named starter.
He made the most of his opportunity, throwing for 330 yards and three touchdowns to lead USC to a 48-10 victory.
Shaw started against UAB the next week but re-injured his shoulder early in the third quarter after throwing for 107 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Thompson answered the bell, passing for 177 yards and two touchdowns in the second half to lead the Gamecocks to a 49-6 victory.
Despite Thompson’s strong performances against ECU and UAB, Shaw remained the starting quarterback until the season finale at Clemson, when he was sidelined with an ankle injury.
Thompson, who hadn’t played a meaningful snap since a blowout loss against Florida, was called upon to lead USC into a hostile environment. He did his part, passing for 310 yards and three touchdowns as Carolina defeated Clemson for the fourth consecutive season.
As if leading USC to a fourth consecutive victory over the Tigers wasn’t enough, Thompson came off the bench to deliver the game-winning touchdown pass with 11 seconds remaining in Carolina’s come-from-behind victory against Michigan in the Outback Bowl.
The 32-yard pass to Bruce Ellington in the closing seconds of USC’s season finale was No. 2 on SportsCenter’s “Top 10 Plays” Tuesday night, capping a turnaround for Thompson as he ended the season as the hero in USC’s final two games.
“It’s pretty cool. As a kid you always watch the Top 10 and see all of the people that are on there. To actually be on there, it was even cooler I guess. I was sitting there in the hotel with my family when I saw it. We were kind of laughing about it,” he said. “Beating your rival and then beating the winningest team in college football history, that’s always a positive, I think. It ended on a high note. That’s always good, especially going into offseason workouts.”
Thompson now heads into the offseason with one thing on his mind — continuing to improve.
Spurrier has said there will be an open competition for the starting quarterback job next season. Thompson said he’s not worried about that, though.
“I just want to be great, whatever that is. If that’s being the starter, if it’s not being the starter, I promise you I’m going to work as hard as I possibly can,” he said. “I’m going to put in the most hours in the film room, in the weight room, on the practice field and just try to be the best. I honestly feel like this team has a chance to do special things.”