After months of summer speculation about who would play quarterback for South Carolina and when they would do it and how long it would last, it took less than a week into preseason practice for the Gamecocks coaches to answer the question.
“A healthy Connor Shaw is the starting quarterback for us,” quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus said. “Anybody who debates that hasn’t been watching the same games I have been watching.”
After junior Dylan Thompson filled in for an injured Shaw and threw for 310 yards in a regular season-ending win against Clemson and then threw the decisive touchdown pass (a 32-yarder to Bruce Ellington with 11 seconds left) in the Outback Bowl, the door seemed wide open for Thompson to rotate snaps with Shaw, or even supplant the senior.
Throughout the winter and spring, the topic was the second-favorite among the team’s fan base, behind only, “What’s Clowney doing today?” Coach Steve Spurrier said there was a place for both quarterbacks and reminded folks of his success juggling players at the position.
However, with the Aug. 29 season-opener against North Carolina suddenly looming, the health, versatility, experience and winning record of Shaw appear to have given him a firm grasp on the job.
“We plan on using both of them, but Connor is the starter, and it’s his game to go every time,” Spurrier said. “If we think there is a place for Dylan to go in there, he may go in there, but we are going with Connor as our starter.”
Figuring heavily into the discussion is Shaw’s 17-3 record as a starting quarterback. It is the best winning percentage of any South Carolina quarterback in history, and his three losses have come on the road against No. 3 Florida, No. 8 Arkansas and No. 9 LSU.
“The record speaks for itself,” Mangus said. “Dylan will have his day. Connor right now is the starter. This season, there is going to be a time we need Dylan, and he’s been there and done that.”
Shaw, who is eight wins away from passing Todd Ellis’ school-best 24 wins at the position, has thrown for 3,627 yards and rushed for another 1,125 in his three seasons at South Carolina. The 6-foot-1, 209-pound Flowery Branch, Ga., native has accounted for 43 touchdowns (32 passing, 11 rushing) and completed 66.8 percent of his passes.
And he’s finally healthy after limping through most of last season with a shoulder injury and then a foot injury. Foot surgery kept him out of spring practice, but he has returned with a fresher arm than he’s had since his freshman year, he and Spurrier agree.
Observers underestimate Shaw’s throwing ability and Thompson’s running ability, Shaw believes, but Shaw’s athleticism also is a factor in the decision. His ability to make something out of nothing was never more evident than in last year’s 35-7 win against No. 5 Georgia, in which he ran for four first downs in the first quarter and finished with 240 yards and three touchdowns passing and rushing.
As for the possibility of sharing time in some capacity?
“You embrace it,” Shaw said. “If you butt heads with it, it’s not going to work out. Last season, me and Dylan embraced it and you can see what happened after that. We have two guys who are now proven winners and have played in big-time games.”
Thompson, a 6-foot-3, 218-pound junior from Boiling Springs, has thrown for 1,044 yards, all but 17 of those coming this past season, and accounted for 12 touchdowns. He has completed 52.7 percent of his passes.
“I am comfortable with our coaches. Coach Mangus, coach Spurrier, they are great. Honestly, I don’t know how it’s going to work out, but I trust them,” Thompson said. “I know all I can do is stay in the playbook, stay focused and just roll with what comes my way.”
Thompson and Mangus also pointed out the inherent instability of even the most firm plans.
“Last year, if you had asked me if I would have started versus Clemson, I would have said, ‘Probably not,’ ” he said. “North Carolina, I feel like I am going to play in that game and we’ll go week to week. I’m sure the more we game plan, the more we will figure out how I fit in and how that works. I am excited about that.”
Mangus pointed to Maryland, where four quarterbacks were injured last season, as an example of the benefits of depth at the position.
“They had to bring a linebacker over as the fifth-team quarterback. That’s what I mean about not getting too comfortable,” he said. “You are always trying to get them ready to play.”
What has become the most intriguing part of the discussion now is whether Spurrier and Mangus find ways to get both quarterbacks on the field at the same time. Shaw, who had scholarship offers as a wide receiver, could play running back or wide receiver with Thompson under center, Spurrier said at SEC Media Days.
“It’s absolute reality,” Shaw said. “We have actually put some schemes together. It’s definitely going to happen.”
SHAW IN THE USC RECORD BOOKS
Completion Percentage - Game
1. Connor Shaw vs. Missouri (9/22/12) ... .952 (20 of 21)
2. Gordon Beckham vs. UNC (10/24/81) ... .941 (16 of 17)
Consecutive Passes Completed - Game
1. Connor Shaw vs. Missouri (9/22/12) ... 20
Completion Percentage - Season
1. Connor Shaw (2012) ... .675 (154 of 228)
2. Steve Taneyhill (1995) ... .671 (261 of 389)
Passing Touchdowns - Season
1. Steve Taneyhill (1995) ... 29
6. Connor Shaw (2012) ... 17 (Tied with two others)
Pass Completions - Career
1. Steve Taneyhill (1992-95) ... 753
9. Connor Shaw (2010-12) ... 300
Completion Percentage - Career
1. Connor Shaw (2010-12) ... .668 (300 of 449)
2. Blake Mitchell (2004-07) ... .607 (482 of 794)
Passing Touchdowns - Career
1. Steve Taneyhill (1992-95) ... 62
7. Connor Shaw (2010-12) ... 32