COLUMBIA -- It happened so quickly that Chris Smelley almost didn't realize it.
He was standing on the sidelines with most everybody else last year when South Carolina played at Mississippi State in the season-opener. On the Gamecocks' 11th offensive play, it happened.
Quarterback Blake Mitchell dumped a 6-yard pass to Robert Pavlovic and didn't get up, rolling on the turf and holding his right knee. Smelley, who'd been playing college football for about a month, looked on with everybody else as Mitchell had to be helped off the field.
"One of the other players grabbed me on the shoulder and said, 'Hey, you better warm up. You might be going in,'" Smelley recalled. "So it was kind of just thrust on me real quick."
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The last pass he'd thrown in a game was for American Christian (Ala.) High School. He was less than a month shy of his 20th birthday and didn't know where all the buildings on campus were yet, much less every intricacy of Steve Spurrier's playbook.
Didn't matter. The Gamecocks needed a quarterback, he was the best available.
"It was like I was in a video game for the first play there," Smelley said. "It was like, 'It's finally here and I'm actually playing in a college football game.'"
His first play was a handoff to Cory Boyd. His second was a screen pass to Sidney Rice, a 7-yard gain.
Two handoffs later, Smelley was drilled for an 8-yard loss, his first sack.
"That kind of settled me down," he said.
Smelley only played a handful of snaps the rest of the year, suffering a heel injury and earning a medical redshirt. Mitchell and Syvelle Newton took the Gamecocks through the rest of the season while Smelley went back into the "potential" pile.
He gets another chance today. Mitchell will be on the bench, suspended a game for missing class.
Smelley, a year older and wiser, will take the first snap of the Gamecocks' 2007 season.
"It's kind of a good opportunity for me to get out on the field for the first time and kind of show everybody what I've got," he said. "I've never really been out there knowing what I'm doing."
He's always been a highly regarded prospect, throwing for more than 10,000 yards and setting the career touchdown record in Alabama during his high school days. But with Mitchell in place for this year, Smelley was grouped with Tommy Beecher and Stephen Garcia as one of three QBs who could take over next year.
The development sped up when Mitchell ran afoul of USC's academic requirements. Spurrier told Smelley that he'd earned the job, although Beecher will also play today.
"We're going to play both of them and see how they do," Spurrier said. "If one of them is playing a little bit better than the other, he may continue on."
Spurrier wouldn't elaborate further. Specifically, he declined to answer a question asking if Smelley (or Beecher) were to play well today against Louisiana-Lafayette, would it be enough to unseat Mitchell next week at No. 13 Georgia.
Smelley dodged the issue, as well. He said while today is a shot to prove himself, he'd let the coaches decide on the depth chart.
"Blake's been here for years, and he's played in the big games and won big games," Smelley said. "I know the team's real confident in Blake and confident we can win with him. I'm just going to work as hard as I can and just see how it goes."
But for one game at least, Smelley's the guy. He couldn't ask for a better situation -- home game, non-conference opponent, an established pair of running backs and a veteran defense to bail him out of trouble, and a lot of friends and family from back home coming to watch him play.
Now he's got to get the job done.
"I think quarterback should be a team leader, somebody that everyone looks up to and knows that he's going to be working hard on the field and giving everything he's got," Smelley said. "It's just got to be somebody that's always going to be there that everybody knows they can rely on."
And if nothing else, it gives the statisticians an opportunity they've been waiting on. If veteran tailback Taylor Rank gets a touch or two, it'll be the line of the night -- Smelley to Rank.