South Carolina to split QB playing time
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Stephen Garcia has started 30 games at quarterback in his South Carolina career, but that still might not be enough for him to be the starter Saturday when the 12th-ranked Gamecocks opens their season against East Carolina.
Coach Steve Spurrier said he might not announce whether Garcia, a senior who led South Carolina to its first SEC championship game last season, or sophomore Connor Shaw will take the first snap until Friday.
Spurrier said it doesn't matter who starts, because both players will play for a few possessions in the first half. The Gamecocks will try to live up to expectations that have them tapped as favorites to win the SEC East again.
"I don't know how you can say one guy is the quarterback for the year when you've got two that are pretty close and one of them is struggling," said Spurrier, referring to the five interceptions Garcia threw in the final two games last season. "I don't know how you tell the other guy he's not going to have a chance."
Spurrier said his main reason for switching quarterbacks is to make sure he has his best player on the field when he needs him, although Garcia clearly is established -- he is third all-time for the Gamecocks in yards passing, completions and touchdowns.
But there is always a hint of psychology from the former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at Florida. Spurrier expects his quarterbacks to have the same drive, focus on the game and willingness to study the playbook that he had in his college and NFL career.
"I really believe competing against each other has made both of them better," Spurrier said.
When Spurrier hears criticism of his decision to rotate quarterbacks, he points back to his Florida days when the Gators won SEC titles alternating between Terry Dean and Danny Wuerffel, and later when Rex Grossman and Jesse Palmer took snaps.
Yet shifting around quarterbacks hasn't worked quite so well at South Carolina.
Spurrier switched between Blake Mitchell and Chris Smelley in 2007, and neither established himself in a 6-6 season.
He also refused to pick a starting quarterback between Garcia and Shaw before last year's opener.
Then he was criticized for yanking Garcia after two fourth-quarter fumbles in last year's 35-27 regular-season loss to eventual national champion Auburn. Shaw came in and ended two promising drives with interceptions. Shaw didn't see meaningful playing time the rest of the season.
For their part, neither Garcia nor Shaw complain about the situation.
After practice Thursday, Garcia shrugged off questions about whether he is bothered that his coach never gives the same backing that star running back Marcus Lattimore and all-SEC receiver Alshon Jeffery get. Both of them have been in the starting lineup since their freshman seasons.
"We've been doing this for two years now. We know how to deal with it. It's really nothing to it," Garcia said.
Garcia usually gets much more praise from opposing coaches than Spurrier, and this week is no exception.
East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said Garcia was just as important as Lattimore and Jeffery last year in getting South Carolina its first SEC East title in 20 years in the league.
"Offensively, you have to start with Stephen Garcia at quarterback. Coach Spurrier has always had fine quarterbacks. Garcia is that guy who can make the throws," McNeill said.
Spurrier insists if Garcia begins this season on the bench, it won't be because of his two suspensions last offseason.
"It's based on performance, not on Stephen's transgressions. We have forgiven him of his transgressions," Spurrier said. "He's a new person, he really is. He's doing things differently. That's all history."
During fall practice, Shaw has been better in scrimmages. Spurrier said Garcia has looked better in the past few practices. Their playing styles are similar. Shaw may have a better touch on his passes, while Garcia is more of a threat to run.
McNeill figures either quarterback can run the offense and give his Pirates fits Saturday.
South Carolina is returning possibly the best running back and receiver in the league, and half of last year's starting defensive line and the starting secondary.
The Gamecocks also added last year's top high school recruit, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who Spurrier said will "be in early and often" in the opener.
"We're facing a really good football team. They have all the pieces on the three sides of the ball. They're picked to win the division," McNeill said.
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press