COLUMBIA -- When Steve Spurrier is asked about South Carolina's offense these days, he begins, quite naturally, by praising Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery.
But there's another name he's quick to add: Stephen Garcia.
Step back and let that sink in. Not even a half-breath after a couple of All-SEC shoo-ins, Spurrier is willing to include a player he was incredibly critical of in the springtime.
Spurrier has insisted he wasn't too hard on Garcia then. Now, it's difficult to question the man's methods after watching Garcia's leap forward this fall as a redshirt junior.
Sure, a lot of things have played into it (Lattimore and Jeffery, notably), but it's obvious Garcia has grown into his skin quite nicely.
Garcia has completed 175 of his 257 passes for 2,419 yards with 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
All that adds up in the very complicated passing efficiency formula to make Garcia the No. 9 quarterback in the country.
Consider the players ahead of Garcia on the list. It's a who's-who of postseason award contenders and first-round picks, between Boise State's Kellen Moore, TCU's Andy Dalton and Stanford's Andrew Luck.
SEC representatives Cam Newton (Auburn), Ryan Mallett (Arkansas) and Greg McElroy (Alabama) are also just ahead of Garcia.
It's good company.
"He's gotten better," USC receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. said. "My dad's on everybody. I can't remember a quarterback he didn't get on. But, you know, he's gotten better."
All this, of course, isn't taking into consideration Garcia's road to get to this point.
The only reason to bring up Garcia's run-ins with police, as a first- and second-year player, is to illustrate how far this Garcia is removed from that one.
"From freshman year, he's matured so much," said senior captain Pat DiMarco, a fellow Floridian who is one of Garcia's best friends on the team. "It's incredible just how much better of a human being he is and how much more grown-up he's been."
There's still a line in the sand that Spurrier establishes about positivity toward and about Garcia.
Asked two very specific questions about the quarterback at his Tuesday news conference, Spurrier briefly -- very briefly -- mentioned Garcia. And then launched into minutes-long diatribes about something altogether unrelated.
The first question was about Garcia's decision-making.
"Yeah, he's played much more consistently this year," Spurrier said. "He needs to play these two weeks (against Clemson and Auburn) very well."
Then came a lengthy, unprompted breakdown of the fact that, sometimes, teams (such as Troy) don't play well for whatever reasons.
The second was about Garcia and cold weather.
Spurrier spent a half- second saying he thinks it's coincidental that Garcia hasn't played well in cold-weather games.
Then came a lengthy discussion, specifically, about the Arkansas game.
Additionally, Spurrier has relegated Garcia to only a couple of midweek media sessions. Regularly, interview requests (including one this Wednesday) are denied.
Further, Spurrier has even kept quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus muzzled most of the fall, as well.
Spurrier would rather those gentlemen play and coach than chat. Given the results, can you blame him?
Would you rather hear Garcia (or Spurrier or Mangus) talk about Garcia's play? Or watch him play well?
"He's much more composed," DiMarco said. "He understands the offense, probably the best of anyone on the field. Compared to last year, it's a whole different level."
Two singled-out plays illustrate how far he's come. They're what Spurrier and the Gamecocks call "scramble plays" -- ad-lib moments that had previously resulted in mild success for the offense, at best, and turnovers at worst.
In the past, Garcia, in all likelihood, would have taken off and run for 2 or 3 yards. Or maybe he would've been sacked.
But once against Vanderbilt, and twice against Florida, Garcia continued to survey the field, extending the play for as long as possible. That's what Spurrier talked about last season and this spring.
Against Vanderbilt, the scramble right turned into a 72-yard, game-sealing touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery.
The play, a third-down conversion pass, was a bit subtler against the Gators. Garcia again rolled right and found D.L. Moore for a 19-yard gain that set up a score to start the second half and put South Carolina ahead by two touchdowns.
Two plays -- and two huge statements for Garcia's progress.
"He's the kind of guy you definitely want to have when the game's close," sophomore center T.J. Johnson said. "He wants the ball. He wants to step up and take charge. He's doing it, more and more."
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