COLUMBIA - In one corner of South Carolina's practice field, Dylan Thompson was learning what it meant to be a starting quarterback in the SEC.

His arm draped around sophomore Pharoh Cooper's shoulders, Thompson was taking charge. A few plays earlier, there was a mixup between quarterback and receiver. Thompson followed one read. Cooper saw something else.

These hiccups are excusable in March. Thompson knows fall is coming soon. So, with his other hand, Thompson pointed and directed, showing the young receiver what he must do differently.

"We were talking about a play that happened in pass (drills)," Thompson said. "Just talking about how we saw it, and how he's going to read it from now on. Just something to learn."

It was a forgettable moment off to the side, away from the action at one of South Carolina's spring practices. Yet, it demonstrated how much Thompson's world has changed this offseason.

In years past, former Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw could handle the bulk of leadership duties. Thompson doesn't have that luxury now. He's a fifth-year senior beginning his first season as full-time starter. Soon, Thompson may be the face of South Carolina's football program. With more exposure comes more responsibility.

So far, quarterback coach G.A. Mangus said Thompson has handled the transition well.

"I see a little difference in how he carries himself - just a little bit," Mangus said. "But he's always been, at least the last couple of years, he's been one of our leaders. Not necessarily in the way he may be more of now, but he's taken a leadership role and always has over the last couple of years. So that comes kind of natural to him, which is a great attribute to have."

When Steve Spurrier handed Thompson the starting quarterback job before spring drills began, it caught some by surprise. Quarterback battles are the normal transition after a three-year starter leaves the program. At the very least, coaches tend to test their options.

Instead, the only source of suspense is who will serve as Thompson's backup.

Thompson wasn't surprised by the immediate promotion. He saw the opportunity coming, perhaps for years. While Shaw established himself immediately on the depth chart - playing nine games as a freshman, starting as a sophomore - Thompson bided his time.

As a redshirt in 2010, the only snaps Thompson received were on the scout team. Many times, Thompson's patience was tested. He never stopped preparing, making sure he was ready when called upon.

"He always prepared himself like he was going to start," Mangus said. "He's used to that. He's used to that preparation schedule. He never did anything less in preparation because he was backing up Connor at the time and wasn't going to start the game.

"That part has been easy for Dylan. Come August . as it approaches game time and all that, he'll have some butterflies. But that's a good thing."

Mangus expects Thompson's experience to dull the nervousness.

He's been the starting quarterback on the road at Clemson, leading South Carolina to a win over its rival. When a shoulder injury knocked Shaw out on the first drive at Central Florida last season, Thompson led the Gamecocks to a victory over the eventual Fiesta Bowl champions.

Few first-time starting quarterbacks can match Thompson's career stat line. He's completed 120 of 218 passes (55 percent) for 1,827 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions in three seasons. That's a full season's worth of production.

"He's played a bit," Spurrier quipped. "He's the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida. Did you know that? . He's the only one in the nation."

Already, Thompson has shined this spring. He completed all seven of his passes in his lone series on the field during South Carolina's first spring scrimmage. The drive ended with a touchdown.

They were reps that used to belong to Shaw. Now, Thompson gets his opportunity.

"It's different, and if I was telling you any different I'd be lying," Thompson said of stepping up in Shaw's absence. "He's a great friend, first of all, just a guy who busted his butt every day and we saw the result. Him not being out here is going to look different and feel different.

"Every snap that we were off the field, we talked. But at the same time, I think it's new for me. I think it'll be good just to communicate with different guys and just learn kind of on my own."