COLUMBIA -- It appears South Carolina's quarterback situation may be rotating a little earlier than last season.
Coach Steve Spurrier announced earlier this week that Blake Mitchell will play today against Vanderbilt, although Chris Smelley, the No. 6 Gamecocks' starter for the past three weeks, will be under center for the first snap. Spurrier clarified later in the week Mitchell would definitely play in the first half.
Either way, it's the same scenario as last year, except Mitchell returned in the ninth game of 2006 instead of the seventh.
The reason why appears to be Spurrier wants to inject some fresh life into an offense that's been struggling, although it's helped win six of seven games. Smelley has performed decently in his four starts this year (he started the season-opener when Mitchell was suspended, only to have Mitchell play the entire game against Georgia the next week), but the shakeup seemed to work before.
"We were struggling against Arkansas and we thought (Mitchell) could throw the three-step passes a little bit better than Syvelle (Newton)," Spurrier said, describing his decision last year to insert Mitchell in the second half, despite Mitchell sitting out the previous six games.
Mitchell took over and nearly rallied USC to a win, although a late interception sealed a 26-20 Arkansas victory. Mitchell stayed under center for the duration, losing at Florida by a point but directing the Gamecocks to three season-ending wins, including at Clemson and in the Liberty Bowl.
Spurrier could have thought of that when he announced Mitchell "deserved" some playing time this week, hoping another resurgence is in the cards after Mitchell's first appearance this year (Georgia) was great and was followed by two miserable showings against S.C. State and LSU. It's not that Smelley has done that poorly -- his ability to move around in the pocket mimicks Newton, although not to that extreme -- but when the offense is pulling up lame, Spurrier said it's ridiculous to think things will improve without change.
"Our guys can't run, or don't choose to run, and I'm trying to get them to run every now and then," Spurrier said. "Maybe they don't think they're supposed to or what, but I do encourage them every now and then to try and run the ball, get down, don't take a big hit, don't run out of bounds when nobody's near you."
If running out of the pass-rush is the problem, Mitchell seems to be the wrong answer. Spurrier has harped on Mitchell's non-desire to run in the past when the quarterback doggedly stayed in the pocket looking for an open man when he should have gunned the ball well out of bounds.
But Spurrier's willing to counter that to see if Mitchell's vision and leadership have improved, which could get the Gamecocks rolling into their stretch run of the season. Linebacker Marvin Sapp, informed of the switch, said that was what the team is expecting today.
"It's all up to him how he handles it and comes back from being benched," Sapp said. "I just saw that he was determined, determined to prove to the coaches that he could do it. He deserves another chance."