COLUMBIA — Back when almost nobody recognized Dylan Thompson, which wasn’t all that long ago, he craved attention.
He showed up at South Carolina in the summer of 2010, a quarterback with one other scholarship offer — from Furman. That class included another quarterback, Connor Shaw, a more publicized prospect who played that fall as Stephen Garcia’s understudy.
Meanwhile, Thompson redshirted in 2010 and heaped expectations on himself that no one else really even considered.
“I think all I cared about when I got here was: ‘Was I going to play?’ ” he said. “I wanted to be seen, then, as the guy that is on the front of the newspaper and kind of getting all the attention. Now, if it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. That’s kind of the way I look at it.”
It did happen, of course. Thompson chuckled this week as he considered how his outlook changed since he started college, and how he ended up getting the fame he once wanted, because of a stunning 2012 season that nobody could have envisioned last spring.
There is no chance he can fade into the background now. With Shaw out for spring practices while recovering from left foot surgery, Thompson can prove to his coaches that he deserves the opportunity to play in 2013 even when Shaw is healthy.
As a sophomore in 2011, he played in four games and threw two passes. In the 2012 opener at Vanderbilt, he looked lost when he had to briefly play because Shaw hurt his shoulder. Thompson diced East Carolina’s putrid defense for 330 passing yards the next week, and hung 177 on Alabama-Birmingham in Week 3, while playing just the second half. Shaw’s shoulder healed, and Thompson got mop-up action in four of the next eight games.
In the next two games, he accomplished things no USC fan will ever forget.
Shaw couldn’t play at Clemson because of his foot. Thompson threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns, and led USC to its first four-game winning streak over the Tigers in 58 years.
Shaw’s foot betrayed him again on USC’s final drive of the Outback Bowl against Michigan, when the Gamecocks trailed by one point. Enter Thompson, who had already completed 4 of 6 passes in the game. He went 3 of 4 on the final drive, including a 7-yard completion on third-and-6 from Michigan’s 39 and, two plays later, a 32-yard touchdown heave with 11 seconds remaining.
So what now? Shaw, who should be fully recovered by summer, will be a senior this fall who has started since midway through 2011.
Thompson will be a fourth-year junior who lacks Shaw’s overall body of work, but is part of two iconic moments in USC history.
“I think Connor’s earned the right, right now, to be the guy,” said quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus. “And Dylan’s earned the right to play. All that stuff works out. We don’t worry about that stuff. They’re two good players, and at some point in time in the season, we’re going to need them both.”
Shaw missing this spring isn’t a big deal to Mangus, especially since Shaw graduated high school early and participated in 2010 spring practices. The benefit to Shaw’s absence: Thompson getting more snaps to work on a weak point, throwing to his left, and gain comfort with changing plays at the line of scrimmage.
“I think (throwing left) is different because it’s not as natural,” said Thompson, who is right-handed. “You’ve got to get your hips opened up. That’s what I’ve been working on. Last year, throwing to my left, I didn’t complete as many balls as I did throwing to my right.”
But he is clearly a better, more confident player than he was last spring. He said he can identify pass coverages quicker. Through two days of practice, Mangus can already tell how Thompson’s 2012 success impacted his demeanor.
“It’s nice to see how that confidence has carried over here to spring,” Mangus said.
Thompson will welcome the praise, because chasing a bigger role still matters to him. But he doesn’t want that pursuit to consume him, as it once did.
“Since I’ve been here and really changed the way I look at things, not that I don’t care about performance, but I try to just work on being the best me that I can be,” he said. “I don’t try to be anybody else.”