Former starting QB Nunez now a bit player in USC offense

Quarterback Lorenzo Nunez, who started two games earlier this season for South Carolina, has four carries in USC’s last three games. (Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina)

COLUMBIA — Six weeks ago, he wasn’t just South Carolina’s starting quarterback — he was the Gamecocks’ quarterback of the future.

“He’s our starting quarterback, and he’s going to be it, barring injury, for a long time,” former USC head coach Steve Spurrier said of Lorenzo Nunez in early October.

Now, with two games remaining in South Carolina’s first losing season in over a decade, plenty has changed. Spurrier is no longer in charge of the Gamecocks, having resigned in the middle of his worst campaign as USC’s head coach. Former offensive line coach Shawn Elliott is running the team on an interim basis. And Nunez has become a bit player in a USC offense now led by another quarterback in Perry Orth.

In between, Nunez suffered a sprained throwing shoulder on the final drive of USC’s Oct. 3 loss at Missouri that kept him on the shelf for several weeks. But even after returning from that, his playing time has come in small bites — a touchdown run on a reverse against Texas A&M, and broken plays against Tennessee and Florida. The true freshman who won over Spurrier in back-to-back starts, and led the Gamecocks (3-7) in rushing in three consecutive games, has seen his role changed considerably with Elliott at the helm.

Nunez hasn’t been approved to speak to the media since the Oct. 31 Texas A&M game, when he said he was trying to “just get back step by step.” But Orth knows the drill — the former walk-on started Sept. 19 at Georgia, and watched Nunez start the next two games. USC’s top three quarterbacks have all been through the starting-and-sitting cycle due to injuries and fluctuations in performance.

“It is tough, because you want to be out there, helping your team win. It just comes with it,” said Orth, likely to make his sixth straight start in Saturday’s noon game against The Citadel (7-3). “You’ve just got to understand where you’re at, and help the team no matter what your role may be. Whether it’s backing up, or starting, or giving pointers on the sideline or different things, you’ve just got to understand that whatever helps the team is what you’ve got to do.”

Nunez’s first appearance under Elliott came on a well-executed trick play against Texas A&M, where he lined up as a receiver and scored on a pass-option run. But at Tennessee, a misread of the sideline signals turned what was supposed to be a pass play into a carry for a loss. And last weekend against Florida, Nunez kept the ball on what was supposed to be a reverse to Pharoh Cooper, but turned into another negative-yardage play.

“The focus is something that’s been lacking sometimes,” Elliott said.

“He’s gone in there in a couple of situations and just had some mess-ups that we really just can’t understand other than just not being ready to go in there and play. We’re going to have to correct that. We’re going to try to utilize him a little bit more and get him more involved, but we can’t do that unless he puts everything into it and kind of eliminates those foolish mistakes.”

The true freshman wasn’t initially considered a candidate to start this season. But injuries to Connor Mitch, who started the first two games before suffering a separated throwing shoulder and infected hip bruise, altered the picture. Offensive coordinator G.A. Mangus said the break from starting will probably benefit Nunez, who has four carries in USC’s last three games.

“When you’re a true freshman like that, to sit back and watch Perry, someone who knows what he’s doing and knows so much about the offense, sometimes it’s good to kind of sit back and watch that and realize, maybe he didn’t know as much as he thought he did,” Mangus said. “And these older guys are good guys for him to learn from.”

Although Elliott considered going to Mitch as Orth struggled last weekend, Nunez has been listed as USC’s backup quarterback the past two games. And he may yet prove USC’s quarterback of the future — but he needs to overcome some freshman hiccups first.

“It’s the little things here and there,” Elliott said. “He’s a great young man. He’s going to be a fantastic quarterback for us, and he’s got good leadership abilities. It’s just a little thing here or there. Maybe he didn’t catch the entire signal, maybe another thing happened when he wasn’t in the right frame of mind, for some reason whatsoever. He’s going to be fine. He’s going to be fine. We don’t have any real concerns about that stuff at all.”

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