The calendar said Labor Day, but South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier was in an April Fools’ Day mood.
Addressing the media Monday evening, Spurrier said he had narrowed the quarterback field to two candidates: Chris Smelley and ... Stephen Garcia?
Then Spurrier grinned and said he was joking about Garcia. Instead, the Gamecocks’ quarterback against Vanderbilt will be Smelley, the player many fans figured would be this season’s starter all along.
Smelley earned the spot with his nearly perfect play against N.C. State in relief of Tommy Beecher, who came out near the end of the third quarter after getting knocked woozy and injuring his left shoulder in the Gamecocks’ 34-0 victory.
Smelley, who was 4-2 as a starter last year, led the Gamecocks to touchdowns on all three of their fourth-quarter possessions while completing 5-of-5 passes for 92 yards and two scores.
Beecher, who threw four interceptions and failed to complete any long passes, returned to practice Monday but still is having trouble lifting his non-throwing shoulder.
But Spurrier said Smelley likely would have been the choice regardless of Beecher’s shoulder.
“He played well, and he deserves to start probably if Tommy wasn’t injured. But Tommy is injured, so we don’t have to worry about this, that or the other,” Spurrier said. “So it appears Chris is going to be our starter right now unless something happens between now and Thursday night.”
And joking aside, Spurrier said Garcia would be the No. 2 quarterback if Beecher’s shoulder has not improved by Thursday.
None of the quarterbacks were available for comment Monday.
After Saturday’s practice, Smelley said he wanted to be “the guy,” adding that has been his goal since he arrived from Tuscaloosa, Ala., in the fall of 2006.
With Blake Mitchell graduating, Smelley was expected to step into the full-time starting role in his third year in the program. But after Smelley threw five interceptions in the spring game in April, Spurrier named Beecher the starter and said repeatedly he would give him every chance to keep the spot all season.
That lasted a week, although Spurrier said USC likely will need two quarterbacks to get through the year.
Beecher, a redshirt junior from Concord, N.C., was 12-of-22 passing for 106 yards in his first career start against N.C. State. His longest completion was a dump-off pass to tailback Mike Davis that covered 18 yards.
Spurrier said Smelley enjoyed better pass protection than Beecher, who was sacked five times and forced to scramble on several other plays.
“Chris played close to perfect because he was 5-for-5, but he had some good plays on. And he executed them the way we try to coach them,” Spurrier said. “But then again, he had good protection and the running game started going. I mean, we were going nowhere until we popped a few runs there. So it sort of all went together.”
All-SEC receiver Kenny McKinley said Smelley’s game experience served him well.
“He’s been in the fire before. I had no doubt that he could come in there and do his thing,” McKinley said. “I’m just ready for him this week to go out and see what he can do at Vanderbilt.”
Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.