WHO: East Carolina (1-0) at No. 21 South Carolina (0-1)
WHEN: Saturday, 7 p.m.
WHERE: Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia
Line: South Carolina by 16½
COLUMBIA - Dylan Thompson lofted the pass into the back corner of the end zone, and Nick Jones laid out to bring the ball to his chest before falling to the ground.
For South Carolina, it was a 10-yard touchdown, and a rare bright spot in a disappointing opener. For the quarterback and the receiver, it was a matter of trust.
That's the term which arises again and again when the subject turns to the two fifth-year seniors from Spartanburg County, who despite coming up through rival high schools have had a connection as long as they can remember. If there was any positive to be found in the Gamecocks' 52-28 loss last week to Texas A&M, it was the combination of Thompson to Jones, which netted a dazzling 69-yard touchdown strike that kept USC in the game early, and the 10-yard score in the third quarter which prompted faint, brief visions of a comeback.
It wasn't to be, as the 21st-ranked Gamecocks (0-1) suffered their worst home defeat in a decade. But in his first game as full-time starter, Thompson threw for 366 yards and four touchdowns. Two of those scores went to Jones, who led South Carolina with five receptions for a career-high 113 yards. They've known one another since they were little kids, 8 or 9 years old, although they were usually on opposite sides. In high school, Jones and Thompson played for Region 2-AAAA rivals Byrnes and Boiling Springs, respectively.
But there was always that connection there, even before they both pulled on garnet and black. There was always that matter of trust.
"I love that guy, man," Jones said of his quarterback. "Me and Dylan have been through so much together. He's probably one of my best friends on the team. I know him better than anybody else on the team. Anything I need - I mean, it's more than just football with Dylan. I know we're different races, but I see him as my brother, honestly. I go to him about any situation, in the offseason he comes to me. We just have a special connection, and I don't know what it is."
The two worked out together over the summer, with Thompson preparing to take the mantle from Connor Shaw, and Jones getting leaner and faster knowing Bruce Ellington's departure would mean more catches to go around. At 6-2 and 218 pounds, Thompson stands every inch the quarterback. At 5-7 - OK, maybe more like 5-6 - Jones has to place an emphasis on precision.
"He just runs good routes," said receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. "He knows how to get open. It's kind of interesting - because he's not so fast, his fundamentals are a little more sound. Some guys who are real fast, they always just go as fast as they can and take off.
"But Nick understands he's got to be a little more patient, and work his feet. He knows how to get open, and does a good job. So hopefully he can continue to play at that level."
Thompson said Jones' best attribute is "just his brain, the way he can think on the field, and play fast while doing it." On the football field, "I can trust him, and he can trust me," the quarterback added, echoing a familiar theme.
Their careers have run in parallel, as they've both progressed from reserve players to part-time starters to now solidly atop their positions on the depth chart. Prior to last week, their biggest hookup was a 70-yard strike which set up an Ace Sanders touchdown against Michigan in the 2013 Outback Bowl.
"We're both smart on the football field," said Jones, who made 27 catches for 281 yards and five TDs last season. "We know where each other is going to be, we know what each other is thinking. That really helps us out a lot."
Although both players enjoyed solid nights in the opener, the sting of the loss left Jones lamenting the one touchdown pass he dropped, and Thompson demanding more efficiency on offense against East Carolina (1-0), which visits Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday night.
"We had a lot of plays we could have done a better job on, and that starts with me," the quarterback said.
But as evidenced by both the 69-yard strike to Jones and a 46-yard touchdown to Damiere Byrd, the deep ball was there, and South Carolina will continue to try to take advantage of the big play.
"We feel like our receivers have enough speed and quickness to get behind anybody," Jones said.
That could produce more connections between a quarterback and a receiver who often seem to think with a single brain, and whose relationship on and off the field is rooted in trust.
"They've known each other a long time," Spurrier Jr. said. "Certainly they've spent a lot of time together this summer. Dylan trusts Nick, which says a lot. . But they certainly know each other and trust each other and have been around each other a long time. Hopefully, that trend can continue."
South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson looks downfield against Texas A&M in the season opener last week. Douglas Rogers/Special to The Post and Courier×
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