April 19, 2008

Notebook: QB Battle Goes The Distance

This spring's 15-round boxing match - oops, position battle - between quarterbacks Chris Smelley and Tommy Beecher was officially declared a draw Saturday afternoon by head coach Steve Spurrier.

Neither quarterback outperformed the other by a significant enough margin in Saturday's spring game to convince head coach Steve Spurrier to name either one the starter heading into the summer.

Spurrier will extend the ongoing battle into fall camp, which officially opens July 31, before he's comfortable naming a starter for the 2008 season opener Aug. 28 against N.C. State.

"We're not going to name (a starter)," Spurrier said. "I thought maybe we would after spring, but I don't think that's what we need to do right now. We need to go through preseason practice. I found through all my years in coaching that some quarterbacks can really get better through the summer. Chris and Tommy have three months to understand the game and make good, quick decisions."

Going by the numbers from Saturday's game, Beecher outperformed Smelley by a modest margin. He completed nine-of-20 passes for 131 yards, including 8-of-16 in the first half with a 34-yard TD toss to Dion Lecorn.

"I thought Beecher played a little bit better today," Spurrier said. "But, overall through the spring, they've been pretty even."

Beecher insisted he didn't miss an opportunity to separate himself from Smelley, saying Spurrier's decision not to name s starter until fall camp wasn't a surprise to him.

"We've been really even during the spring," Beecher said. "This was just one scrimmage. I really felt like the quarterback decision wasn't going to be made until the fall anyway. Of course, I would have liked to have played better. It would have made the decision easier. I'm just going to work harder in the off-season and get ready for fall camp."

Smelley, meanwhile, had a nightmarish start with interceptions on the Garnet's first five possessions. Following two punts, he finally ended the scoreless drought with a TD pass to Dion Lecorn with 52 seconds remaining in the first half.

"Some of it was good plays by the DB's and some of it was tipped passes and some of it was bad decisions by me," Smelley said. "It was a mixture of everything. But the good thing is that it wasn't N.C. State. That's where it counts."

The two quarterbacks combined for seven interceptions in the opening half.

"We almost set a spring game record for interceptions in the first half. We may have set it," Spurrier said. "We must have been close to it. The defense made some good plays and the quarterbacks lobbed a few right into the middle of coverages. We weren't happy with some of the throws. Bu some of them were little deflections. The timing of the quarterbacks throwing today wasn't very good."

Smelley finished 13-of-30 with five interceptions and three touchdowns. He was 6-of-8 with two touchdowns in the second half.

"I would have liked to come out of the spring practice with everybody singing my praises, saying I looked great out there," Smelley said. "But that's not how it happens sometimes."

Like Beecher, he also wasn't surprised Spurrier decided to allow the quarterbacks to continue battling for the starting job into the fall.

"I really didn't do much out there to help myself," Smelly said. "We both played well this spring. We'll battle it out, keep doing what we're doing and see what happens in the pre-season. Whoever performs the best in the fall will be the starter. There's a long ways to go and lots of room for improvement."

Neither quarterback's numbers in Saturday's spring game impressed Spurrier, who pointed out that Kenny McKinley, USC's top receiver, was out with an injury. However, he also noted Beecher is a redshirt junior and Smelley a redshirt sophomore.

"At some point, one of the quarterbacks has to really show a strong commitment level to really want to be good," Spurrier said. "Right now, I don't think any quarterback that we have here knows what really playing well is all about. Maybe that's my fault. I always expect them to be better but it hasn't really happened yet. These guys have been around. They should be ready to go."

Have the current contenders left the door open for Stephen Garcia to steal the starting job once he returns August 15 from his suspension? How about incoming freshman Aramis Hillary, whom Spurrier said recently would be the No. 3 QB when fall camp opened.

"We're not going to worry about the guys that aren't here," Spurrier said. "Aramis and Reid McCollum will be here, but it's unrealistic to think they can come here and learn how to play (immediately). No, we'll review the tape as fast as we can and try to get Chris Smelley to let the ball go a little quicker and try to get Beecher quicker."

Garcia and the incoming freshman quarterbacks aren't on the minds of the current quarterbacks, either.

"I don't even know what to expect from Garcia," Beecher said. "Nobody has really seen him play. I'm looking forward to him getting out there with us, of course. That is one of the things I can't control. I think Chris and I feel like we can grab that starting spot. I don't feel like Garcia is God sent to get that first spot."

SHARING THE PLAY-CALLING: Spurrier and wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier, Jr. shared play-calling duties during Saturday's spring game. Spurrier created a media buzz recently by announcing that he would allow his son to call some of the plays this season.

"I was right there with him," Spurrier said. "I called a whole bunch of them and let him signal them in. It was good for us to learn. We'll try to iron out the little bugs. It really frees me up to look for a big play that looks pretty good. We were on the headset together. We need to make sure we have all the plays on the wrist bands so we can get them in quickly."

MADDOX TO THE MAX: Sophomore Brian Maddox didn't find much running room in the first two full-contact scrimmages of spring practice, but he managed to generate 90 yards on just 10 carries in Saturday's spring game. His longest run from scrimmage was a 37-yard TD run with 5:20 left in the second quarter.

"I was surprised because that was the biggest hole I've seen all spring," Maddox said. "My eyes got real big. I was able to score."

Mike Davis and Eric Baker, the primary competition for Maddox, combined for 30 yards on six rushes. The second leading rusher in the game was senior Bobby Wallace, who rushed five times for 51 yards.

"I had a blast out there today," Maddox said. "I got a lot of carries. My offensive line did an outstanding job. I want to get quicker and faster and work on my blocking even more."

CULLIVER CONTENT AT SAFETY: Chris Culliver wanted to play wide receiver in college when he was recruited by many major colleges before signing with USC in 2007.

But it never worked out for Culliver there. He had difficulty learning the plays and reading defenses, a must in Steve Spurrier's system. He moved to safety early in spring practice and says he's happy with the move.

"The move is very natural," Culliver said. "In my heart I think I'm a defensive player. I know I could make a lot of things happen on offense. But all of my speed and ability has to be put somewhere. I'm glad I made the transition back over to defensive back. Coach (Ron) Cooper has really taken me under his wing. I've been real successful."

Culliver made one of the biggest defensive plays of the spring game when he scooped up a fumble and returned it 83 yards for a touchdown. He performed a front flip after crossing into the end zone.

"We've learned that Culliver is more of a defensive player," Spurrier said.

The spring game provided Culliver with his lone opportunity to perform the celebratory maneuver in front of Gamecock fans since it will draw a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty during the regular season.

"I wanted to flip a little better but I was tired," Culliver laughed.

Spurrier said he told the defensive players that if any of them scored a touchdown, they could do a dance without drawing a penalty.

SPECIAL TEAMS MORE UPBEAT: Placekicker Ryan Succop nailed a 56-yard field goal in Saturday's spring game. Afterwards, he praised new special teams coordinator Ray Rychleski for creating a refreshing attitude on special teams.

"It's a lot more upbeat this year," Succop said. "Coach Ray has come in and he's got a good bit to do with (the attitude change). It feels great with everyone hustling and working hard."

Succop was named the Offensive MVP of the spring. Spurrier said he would likely allow Succop to attempt a field goal of that length (56 yards), especially in favorable wind conditions.

"It's not hard to call for Ryan to attempt one of those, especially downwind a little bit," Spurrier said. "Ryan has kicked the ball very well."

Spencer Lanning, trying to win the punting job from Succop, averaged 38 yards in three punts for the Garnet team Saturday. Succop averaged 37.5 yards for two punts.

"Obviously, there are things we need to improve on, but overall it was a good day," Succop said.

NO COACHING ALLOWED: NCAA rules severely restrict the amount of contact football coaches are allowed to have with their players between the spring game and the start of fall camp. No formal instruction or coaching is permitted.

Essentially, the players must workout on their own. Strength and conditioning coach Mark Smith directs the summer conditioning program and reports back to Spurrier and the other coaches on how things are developing.

The rule means Steve Spurrier will have little meaningful contact with any of the Gamecock quarterbacks until the start of fall camp.

"The quarterbacks need a lot of work this summer and I hope they'll do it, but it's against the rules for the coaches to be with them," Spurrier said. "They have to do it on their own. We can't be there and watch them. We can give them a piece of paper and say, 'Here is what I would like you to do.' But I don't know how much they all do."

In addition to the physical workouts, the players are also urged to watch videotape on their own.

"The players know what to work on," Spurrier said. "They can come watch tape. We can give them some scripts. The quarterbacks organize the pass skels. All teams do that. That's the way it should be. We have plenty of time to work with them. Some guys, you can work with them day and night and they can only get so much better."

Tommy Beecher vowed to put in the work over the off-season to improve his chances of earning the starting job in the fall.

"I'm going to put me head into the play book and get bigger and stronger," Beecher said. "We'll start 7-on-7 drills over the summer. Quarterback is a leadership position and Coach is looking for someone to step up and execute and make good decisions. Both Chris and I have the ability to do that."

THE WEAKEST LINK: Guard Lemuel Jeanpierre just completed his first full spring as an offensive lineman after shifting over from the defensive line about a week before last year's Garnet and Black game. The offensive line has struggled for most of the spring, a reality that Jeanpierre is willing to acknowledge.

"We know we have been the weakest link," Jeanpierre said. "But we have a lot of new guys and I hadn't ever played on the O-Line but we're getting a lot better. We just have to change the mindset. We're getting stronger all the time."

Jeanpierre was a defensive linemen his first two years with the Gamecocks after signing with USC in 2005.

MISCELLANEOUS: Spurrier said USC would move Patrick DiMarco to tight end from fullback in order to get him on the field. "The fullbacks don't get on the field enough in our offense and our tight ends get tired," Spurrier said. "That's a move we'll have to make. DiMarco is a good athlete that needs to get more involved". . .Spurrier said Dion Lecorn has a chance to become an impact WR, though he has to watch his weight and not become 'too heavy'. . .Spurrier said freshman WR Charles Whitlock was talented, but is "a long way off". . .Spurrier said WR Matt Clements must improve his route-running. . .WR Moe Brown suffered a sprained ankle in the first quarter and didn't return. . .Redshirt freshman WR Jason Barnes did not dress for the spring game after suffering an ankle injury earlier this week in practice. . .The players will report July 31 for fall camp. The first of 29 workouts prior to the Aug. 28 season opener against N.C. State is set for Aug. 2. . .The annual Ladies Clinic is Sat., July 19. . .Considered the unofficial kickoff to the new college football season, SEC Media Days are set for July 23-25 in Birmingham.

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