- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
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Backup quarterbacks have the life, right? Maybe in the NFL, where you’re getting paid, but not in college football, where for most games you know you’re not going to play unless it’s a blowout. And in the rare case that something does happen to the starter, you’re asked to come in without any physical or mental preparation.
Dylan Thompson figured that out in 2012, his redshirt sophomore year.
It was the season opener against Vanderbilt. Despite attempting two passes in his career to that point, Thompson prepared for the game as if he was going to play. It didn’t matter that South Carolina had Connor Shaw, who threw for 1,448 yards and 14 touchdowns the year before. In the back of his mind, Thompson thought he might take the field.
As it turns out, he was right. Shaw went down late in the first half with the game tied, and coach Steve Spurrier called the backup’s number.
“Connor goes down, I go in and it’s like, 'Oh shoot, we’re in a game right now,' " Thompson said.
The inexperienced sophomore came out for three drives. He was sacked twice, missed on all three of his pass attempts, and the Gamecocks failed to pick up a first down while he was on the field. Needless to say, it wasn’t the 2012 debut he had envisioned.
South Carolina still won the game 17-13, thanks to Shaw’s return, but Thompson learned a valuable lesson when it comes to life as a backup quarterback.
“Since then, it's been awesome just the level of preparation that it takes to be on the field and know what's truly going on, not to just be out there guessing,” he said. “That's something I've really learned and learned early -- the hard way.”
The very next week, Thompson threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns in South Carolina’s 48-10 win over East Carolina. It was an impressive response to what happened the week before, but once Shaw was back to 100 percent, Thompson was putting on the headset again.
It stayed that way through the rest of 2012 and all of 2013. Thompson would play if Shaw got hurt, but otherwise he had to sit back and wait his turn. Most quarterbacks would have grown impatient, maybe even transferred to a school that offered more playing time, but not Thompson, a former two-star prospect on whom South Carolina took a chance.
“Honestly, that never crossed my mind,” Thompson said. “Everyone else I talked to in that spot was like, 'Yeah, I'm going to transfer,' or 'I thought about it, talked to my family about it.' But I never even once went to my family. It never really crossed my mind.”
Ken Mastrole, a private coach who has worked with a number of college quarterbacks, including Thompson, didn't think for a second that his pupil would transfer.
“South Carolina offered him and he stayed loyal,” Mastrole said. “He's the guy you pull for that bleeds for the program. It's not about himself, and it's never been that way.”
After waiting patiently behind Shaw for three seasons, Thompson is now the guy for South Carolina. The senior, who graduated in May, will lead a team ranked in the top 10 and on a quest to win the first SEC championship in school history.
Thompson’s roommate, offensive lineman A.J. Cann, believes that’s why he stayed.
“The things that South Carolina was doing -- being an SEC contender the past few years and the chance they have to win it this year -- I think he can help lead this team,” Cann said. “I think he's capable of doing it. He was blessed with the ability to lead because he does a great job in the leadership role, and I think he's been waiting patiently. He's ready to step in and make some big plays for us.”
There will be pressure that comes with it, and there will be scrutiny, but it’s nothing Thompson hasn’t dealt with before. If he has learned anything from his time as a backup, it’s to relish every rep, enjoy every moment, and take advantage of every opportunity.
“The coolest thing about this year for me is that it doesn't determine anything in my life. It doesn't matter so much," Thompson said. "It's just a season of football, and when I'm 80 years old, I don't think I'll be freaking about what happened in the third game of the season in 2014.
“I'm just excited to have the opportunity to have fun and play. I will not take that for granted.”
2dSam Khan and Greg Ostendorf