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Spring Game: USC’s passing is failing

Cornerback Stoney Woodson intercepts a pass intended for Joe Hills in the second quarter of the annual 2008 Garnet and Black Spring Game was held at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday, April 19, 2008. Chris Culliver watches as the play happens.
Cornerback Stoney Woodson intercepts a pass intended for Joe Hills in the second quarter of the annual 2008 Garnet and Black Spring Game was held at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday, April 19, 2008. Chris Culliver watches as the play happens. The State

With several players changing sides and receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. calling plays for both teams Saturday, it was difficult at times to distinguish the Garnet from the Black during South Carolina’s spring game.

Adding to the confusion was the fact that quarterbacks Chris Smelley and Tommy Beecher kept throwing passes to the wrong team — the defense.

Smelley and Beecher combined for eight interceptions, giving the game a rag-tag quality and ensuring the quarterback competition would drag on through the summer.

Not surprisingly, Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said he would not name a starter until August, when suspended freshman Stephen Garcia could be back in the mix by successfully completing several university-imposed disciplinary requirements.

“At some point one of the quarterbacks has to really show a strong commitment level to really want to be good,” Spurrier said. “Right now I don’t think any quarterback we have knows what really playing well is all about.”

Spurrier tweaked the format to try to create more offense following last year’s 14-7 spring snooze fest. The defenses played three coverages and were prohibited from blitzing in the 37-34 win by the Black.

While points were plentiful, two of the scores were defensive touchdowns and another came on an illegal play when walk-on receiver Scott Spurrier ran off the sideline to catch a touchdown pass from Smelley.

Despite the absence of a pass rush and six defensive starters, the quarterbacks struggled.

Smelley threw five interceptions in the first half, including three in a seven-play stretch. Beecher was only slightly better with three picks. On the lone second-half interception, Mike Newton stepped in front of a Beecher pass and returned it 82 yards for a touchdown.

“We about set a spring game record for interceptions in the first half,” Spurrier said. “We may have set it. I don’t know what the record is.”

The quarterbacks said the interceptions were the result of bad decisions, poor throws and nice defensive plays. Spurrier said their timing was off and each “lobbed a few in the middle of coverage.”

Smelley, who was 4-2 last year as a starter, completed 13 of 30 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns. Beecher, who will be a redshirt junior in the fall, was 9 of 20 for 131 yards and a score.

Spurrier pointed out that Blake Mitchell was 13 of 39 in last year’s spring game. “This ain’t bad compared to (that),” he said.

But it was not what either player had in mind.

“It’s definitely not a showing of what I’ve been doing this spring and what kind of quarterback I am,” Smelley said. “The good thing is it wasn’t N.C. State.”

Which quarterback will be the starter when the Wolfpack visit Williams-Brice Stadium for the Aug. 28 opener remains to be seen.

Spurrier said it would be unrealistic to think incoming freshmen Aramis Hillary and Reid McCollum could be ready after four weeks of preseason practice. Spurrier would not discuss Garcia, who spent the weekend in his hometown of Tampa, Fla.

Garcia has the pedigree: The right-hander was rated as one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterbacks in the recruiting class of 2007.

But he has yet to take a snap in a game and was suspended for spring practice each of his first two years following run-ins with the law.

Despite their shaky performances, Beecher said he and Smelley do not plan on ceding the job to Garcia if and when he returns.

“I don’t even know what to expect from Garcia. No one’s really seen him play,” Beecher said. “I think Chris and I feel like we can grab the starting spot. I don’t feel like Garcia’s a godsend to get that first spot.”

But given the chance to grab it Saturday, both Smelley and Beecher failed to do so.

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.

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