CHRIS SMELLEY WILL start Thursday when South Carolina plays at Vanderbilt. That does not mean Steve Spurrier has kicked Tommy Beecher to the curb. Rather, it means Beecher is injured, and Smelley gains the start by default.
You have to wonder, though, why Spurrier has gone to great lengths to defend Beecher following the redshirt junior’s dismal performance last week in his first start.
This is the same Spurrier who has been known during his career to change quarterbacks on a whim. Yet there he was Friday, Saturday and again Sunday putting much of the blame for Beecher’s showing on an offensive line that could neither create holes for USC running backs nor pass protect for Beecher.
No doubt, Beecher’s performance — one-fourth of his 16 completions went to N.C. State —was greatly influenced by an offensive line that seems to major in what Spurrier likes to call “whiff” blocks.
So, how does Spurrier explain Smelley’s success after being called from the bullpen for the fourth quarter? The offensive line seemed to come to life under Smelley. He had plenty of time to complete all five of his pass attempts, and USC rushed for 116 yards during the quarter.
“We mixed the run in with the pass better when he was in there, and the protection was better for whatever reason,” Spurrier said. “I have no idea, same protections and so forth. Tommy didn’t play very well, either. I’m not trying to give him all the outs, that he played super and he had no protection.”
It could be that Spurrier recognized N.C. State was out of gas by the time Smelley entered the game. It could be that Spurrier does not want to back down from his decision in the spring that Beecher is the better of the two. It could be that Spurrier is getting softer late in his coaching career and has a little more sympathy for the pressures of running his system.
My guess is Spurrier realizes Smelley is not the answer for the remainder of the season, and he cannot afford for Beecher’s confidence to erode. Even if Smelley performs well against Vanderbilt, Spurrier is still going to need Beecher. Spurrier admitted as much.
“It appears that we’re probably going to need two quarterbacks,” Spurrier said. “Guys get hit all the time. We’ll see how the season goes. That’s all you can do. You’d have to guess we’re going to need (two) quarterbacks to maximize our talent this year.”
It is worth examining how Spurrier has handled such situations in his previous 18 years as a college coach.
Both Doug Johnson and Jesse Palmer had sub-par debuts as quarterback at Florida during the 1997 season, yet both rebounded to have creditable careers. Johnson threw three interceptions in his first start, and Palmer passed for 92 yards in his first start.
Spurrier’s quarterbacks have thrown four or more interceptions nine times, and nearly everyone on that list enjoyed a stellar career. It is no slight for Beecher to be join Shane Matthews, Rex Grossman and Doug Johnson, Florida quarterbacks who threw at least four interceptions in a game and later played in the NFL.
“I think he lost his confidence a few times the other night,” Spurrier said of Beecher. “How to get it back is the next question. I don’t know. We’ll just try to put the best guy out there. It’s as simple as that.”
For now, that is Smelley on Thursday at Vanderbilt. By the following Saturday when No. 1 Georgia rolls into town, it could be Beecher again.
“Every quarterback I’ve coached, except for Shane Matthews, has been benched at one time or another, and every quarterback I’ve coached has had another chance to come back,” Spurrier said. “I’ve just learned over the years that going to the bench a little bit and coming back makes you a better player.”
When Spurrier said during the preseason that he had every intention of using Beecher as the starter for the entire season, he probably meant it. The likelihood of it happening was slim, particularly since Matthews and Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel are the only two quarterbacks to run the table during a season under Spurrier.
Matthews started a remarkable 36 consecutive games during Spurrier’s first three seasons at Florida from 1990 through 1992. Wuerffel led Florida through its national championship season of 1996.
It is pretty clear that neither Beecher nor Smelley are in the same category as Matthews and Wuerffel. To expect either Beecher or Smelley — both with little experience — to provide the kind of performances and display the necessary leadership skills for an entire season under Spurrier is unrealistic.
So, Smelley jumps in the saddle for now, and Beecher will be back at the first sign of trouble.
Listen to Morris Tuesday from 4-5 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.1 FM.
THROWING TO WRONG GUYS
Eight times during Steve Spurrier’s 19 seasons as a college head coach he has had a quarterback throw four or more interceptions in a game. Spurrier’s teams won four of those games.
|5||Shane Matthews||Florida||Miss. State||1992||L|
|4||Tommy Beecher||USC||N.C. State||2008||W|
Baptisms under FireDUKE
|Dave Brown||1989||Wake Forest||24-36-1-444-4|
|Shane Matthews||1990||Oklahoma St.||20-29-0-332-1|
|Terry Dean||1993||Arkansas St.||16-22-1-237-2|
|Eric Kresser||1995||No. Illinois||26-42-1-458-6|
|Doug Johnson||1997||So. Miss.||17-34-3-231-2|
|Blake Mitchell||2005||Central Fla.||18-23-0-333-3|
|Tommy Beecher||2008||N.C. State||12-22-4-106-0|