COLUMBIA — Amid all the debate over who will be South Carolina’s quarterback this coming season, one fact is habitually overlooked: that the Gamecocks have a returning starter at the position.
The forgotten man at that spot is Perry Orth, the former walk-on whose preparation and timing paid off in the form of eight starts last season. He got there after Connor Mitch went down with shoulder and hip injuries, returned there after Lorenzo Nunez went down with a shoulder injury, and showed enough grit that he became entrenched in the position under interim head coach Shawn Elliott.
Add to that the substantial stretches he played against North Carolina and Kentucky while Mitch was in and out with injuries, and you have a rising senior quarterback who was effectively at the helm for the bulk of 10 games last season — something not easily dismissed. No wonder head coach Will Muschamp listed Orth and true freshman phenom Brandon McIlwain as co-No. 1s on the post-spring depth chart.
This after Orth missed roughly half of spring practice with a broken collarbone in his non-throwing shoulder, an injury which required surgery. Even out of action and with his left arm in a sling, Orth was no spectator — during the periods of spring practice open to the media, he was as active as ever, ducking in and out of huddles and ready with advice.
“He has such a command of the offense,” tight end Hayden Hurst, a friend of Orth’s from the Jacksonville, Fla., area, said in the spring. “He wants to help people, help people to get better. He’s still the returning starting quarterback, so he’s going to lead us.”
Indeed, no player in USC’s quarterback derby has more college experience than Orth, who passed for 1,929 yards and 12 touchdowns a season ago. Mitch will transfer after he graduates later this summer. Nunez remains a question mark after missing almost all of spring practice with a hyperextended knee. McIlwain wowed with a pair of TD passes in the spring game, and true freshman Jake Bentley promises to join the fray in preseason camp.
With a pair of high-profile Muschamp signees in the picture, it’s easy to dismiss Orth, who went 1-7 as a starter in last season’s dismal 3-9 campaign. And yet, Muschamp has reiterated that Orth remains in the picture, on even footing with McIlwain exiting spring ball. “You always need a steady hand,” USC co-offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon said in the spring.
And that’s exactly what Orth brings to USC, whether he’s on the field or on the sideline, and why he could be as critical to the Gamecocks’ success as any other player in 2016. Either Orth is the starter, putting all that quickly-acquired knowledge of playcaller Kurt Roper’s system to immediate use; or he’ll be chief advice-giver and morale-builder to McIlwain, Bentley, or whomever ends up taking the snaps.
There’s still no guarantee that won’t be him, pending developments in preseason camp and the first few weeks of the season. Orth, who eschewed offers from small colleges out of high school to walk on in the SEC, has been overlooked his whole career. This season, his steadiness and leadership on a Gamecocks offense in need of both qualities may comprise his most important job yet.