COLUMBIA — Bruce Ellington noticed a difference with his quarterback when this season began.
Suddenly, South Carolina senior Connor Shaw saw the whole field. No longer did he automatically throw to his primary receiver. In games, the Gamecocks’ second-year starter scanned the secondary, passing over targets like he was going down a check list. He stayed in the pocket, more reluctant to tuck the football and run.
It’s the transition every quarterback must make. Ellington sees Shaw on film, and he’s convinced the senior made that leap.
“Last year, he’d look at the first option and run out,” said Ellington, USC’s top receiver. “But this year, he’s taking his time. Coach is talking to him — who’s open, who’s not open. He’s staying in the pocket and throwing the ball.
“He’s just got that confidence. He’s coming out to practice and being a leader. That’s what it takes as a quarterback — to control the offense — and that’s what he’s doing.”
In a rare moment of transparency Tuesday, Shaw was blunt. Yes, he said, this is the best he’s ever played. His numbers show it. Of course, his reputation still lags behind.
In the SEC, there is no shortage of quarterback talent. This is the conference that produced last season’s Heisman Trophy winner, and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel wasn’t even selected to the Preseason All-SEC First Team. That distinction went to Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. Others thought Georgia’s Aaron Murray deserved it. Neither had the best stat line through the first four weeks, with LSU’s Zach Mettenberger becoming a breakout star.
On and on the list goes, no mention of Shaw. He’s always been viewed a cut below the elite. Early this season, he boasts something Manziel, McCarron, Murray and Mettenberger can’t.
Shaw is the only SEC quarterback to toss at least six touchdowns with no interceptions. He hasn’t thrown it to the other team in his past 116 attempts, going back to last season’s win against Wofford. It’s the longest streak in his career.
“I’m playing well, probably better than I have in the past,” Shaw said. “As far as protecting the ball, and doing things differently, I’m just playing smart. I’m not forcing things. I’m taking what the defense is giving me.”
USC coach Steve Spurrier would like Shaw to take more.
As a pure playmaker, Shaw has room to grow. His 220.3 passing yards per game don’t blow anyone away — though, his 287.7 total yards per game is fourth in the SEC. Shaw is more game manager than superstar, even if USC is on pace to average 30 points per game for the second straight season with him as a full-time starter.
USC has benefited with Shaw behind center. His 66.5 percent completion rate is the highest career mark in program history. Along with Jeff Grantz, Shaw is one of two Gamecocks to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000.
Most important, Shaw is 19-4 as a starter, including 12-0 at home.
But, while Shaw has progressed as a pocket passer, Spurrier is focused on the next phase. He wants Shaw to take more shots downfield, going after more big plays.
“We should be taking more, if I could get him to throw it,” Spurrier said last week. “We’re calling more, but a lot of times he doesn’t throw it. He doesn’t think the guy’s open, and sometimes it’s not. But, at times, I wish he would chuck a few more deep ones down there, when there’s an opportunity.”
There’s always something to improve, but Spurrier finds it hard to complain too much.
The worst thing a quarterback can do is turn the ball over. Shaw lost a fumble at Georgia, a costly mistake late in the game. He hasn’t been perfect. Still, with Shaw managing the offense, South Carolina has experienced some of the best quarterback play in program history.
“He’s played very well,” Spurrier said Tuesday. “He takes care of the ball extremely well. I watched some of those NFL guys toss those careless interceptions, and I say, ‘Our guy doesn’t do that.’ So he’s careful where he throws it.”