College Sports

For now, Gamecocks have no quarterback controversy

COLUMBIA -- No tryouts. No controversy. No drama. Steve Spurrier has a starting quarterback at South Carolina -- at least for this week.

For more than a month, Spurrier has searched for a passer to build up South Carolina's struggling offense.

He's swapped out QBs, held weeklong practice auditions and spent extra time showing off his Heisman Trophy-winning form in fixing problems.

But the head ball coach known for yanking quarterbacks may have found the gem he's wanted for the Gamecocks (4-2, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) in sophomore Chris Smelley, particularly after his breakout performance in rallying South Carolina from 11 points down to defeat Ole Miss 31-24 last Saturday.

"It's helpful if you have one quarterback and everybody knows who's going to be your quarterback," Spurrier said Tuesday.

Right now, that's Smelley, a sophomore from Tuscaloosa, Ala., who has started 11 games overall the past two seasons with mixed reviews.

Smelley played heroically in a win over against No. 8 Kentucky last season and a 14-7 loss to highly ranked Georgia last month. However, Smelley was also the starter in the Gamecocks' two straight losses to Vanderbilt, something that despite the Commodores' 5-0 start this year, hasn't sat well with some South Carolina fans.

No matter, win or lose, Spurrier typically would bemoan his team's lost offensive chances and his quarterbacks' inability to go downfield. Even this season, Smelley's started the past five games and yet has had to endure numerous auditions with backups Stephen Garcia and Tommy Beecher before begrudgingly getting Spurrier's nod a couple of days before kickoff.

There'll be no similar scenes this week heading into a game at Kentucky.

Smelley threw for a career-high 327 yards and tied his career best with three TD passes in the Ole Miss win. He hit the longest pass of his short college career, a 63-yard hookup with tight end Jared Cook. The performance earned Smelley the Southeastern Conference's player of the week on offense.

"Yeah, I felt pretty good out there," Smelley said after the game. Spurrier has not yet allowed Smelley to meet with the media this week.

Spurrier's not yet ready to hand the keys to the "Cock-'n-Fire" offense to Smelley and watch scoreboards blow their fuses with all the upcoming points.

"No, no, I'm not at that place yet," Spurrier said.

Smelley hasn't had topflight games back-to-back yet. As often as the Gamecocks connected, there were also lost chances to hit the end zone even more, Spurrier said.

"There's a lot of plays (Smelley) can do better," Spurrier said. "I think he knows that. And when he starts doing that, then maybe we'll feel that way. But we're not there yet. We're all still a work in progress."

Still, Spurrier's got to feel better about where his offense is now compared with a few weeks back. The Gamecocks improved to sixth in SEC offense, up two spots from a week ago.

Smelley's not the only reason. Freshman receiver Jason Barnes has 10 catches since starting the last two games, including two TD grabs in the Ole Miss victory.

Smelley says he trusts Barnes to make the plays, as he's done the past two weeks. "I think that his confidence is starting to rise," the quarterback said.

Last week's game boosted morale on both sides of the ball, defensive end Clifton Geathers said.

"We love seeing the offense going down the field and scoring," Geathers said. "It gets us to where we know we have to stop the run, we have to do our thing."

Spurrier won't let himself ease up yet with the juiciest half of South Carolina's schedule ahead. Smelley has to improve timing and his ability to audible. Plus, there are certain throws Garcia hits better than Smelley, leading Spurrier to say he'll prepare his backup for some situational duties against the Wildcats.

"We potentially could be a lot better, put it that way," Spurrier says. "But we're not there yet. We're certainly not there yet."



• When: 12:30 p.m. Saturday

• Where: Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, Ky.

• TV: WAXN (cable channel 10 in Rock Hill)

• Tickets: Available at 1-800-4SC-FANS