KENNESAW, Ga. — For the better part of four decades, Steve Spurrier has built a national brand as an offensive genius. A quarterback guru that could turn a player with average talent into an NFL prospect.
His ability to mold young quarterbacks into NFL-level talent is as much a part of his legacy as his trademark visor.
More than a half-dozen Spurrier protégés have gone on to play in the NFL, including South Carolina’s Connor Shaw, who started one game for the Cleveland Browns this past season.
But as college defenses became faster and figured out how to slow down pass-happy, pro-style offenses, Spurrier knew he needed to change his philosophy.
The need for a strong-armed, pocket quarterback became less and less important, especially against elite SEC defenses.
Slowly, Spurrier shifted his emphasis to a quarterback with mobility. A quarterback that can extend plays with his feet and be a threat in the running game with the read option.
Lorenzo Nunez, a 6-3, 195-pound senior at Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Ga., is just such a quarterback.
With 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash, Nunez is as fast as any running back or wide receiver on the Gamecocks’ roster. He has the vision and moves of a running back to go along with a cannon for an arm. A consensus four-star prospect, Nunez is the 16th-ranked dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school this year, according to Rivals.com (ranked 18th by ESPN).
Nunez, who verbally committed to the Gamecocks back in June, is the highest-rated quarterback Spurrier has signed since Stephen Garcia. Nunez is expected to sign with the Gamecocks on Wednesday — National Signing Day.
“Lorenzo Nunez has a unique skill set,” said Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell. “He has high-end running skills and a very strong arm. When he gets outside of the pocket, he can improvise and make plays down the field with his arm or his feet. A lot of people think he’s an athlete playing quarterback, but I believe he’s a quarterback who happens to be a great athlete.”
A few years ago, Spurrier would not have taken a second look at a quarterback with Nunez’s skill set. Today, players like Nunez are at the top of his recruiting wish list.
When offensive line coach Shawn Elliott joined the Gamecocks coaching staff in 2010, the offense began shifting to the read option. Elliott had seen firsthand at Appalachian State what was possible with a mobile quarterback.
Connor Shaw, the winningest starting quarterback in Gamecocks history, eventually made Spurrier a true believer. Three 11-win seasons later and Spurrier is now a full convert.
The Gamecocks took a one-year hiatus from the read option this past season with Dylan Thompson at quarterback. Despite setting a single-season passing mark, Thompson’s lack of mobility became an issue as the season progressed. With the threat of a running quarterback taken off the table, defenses could key on running backs and wide receivers.
Nunez started his senior season as the No. 8 dual-threat quarterback by both Rivals.com and 247Sports. He was widely considered to be a top-200 prospect by most recruiting services.
However, his statistics dropped off last year, and so did his ratings. In Harrison’s run-first offense, Nunez passed the ball an average of 14 times a game. He threw for just 803 yards and had more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (2). He did rush for 1,193 yards and 14 TDs.
He showed flashes of brilliance during the season. Against rival North Paulding, Nunez rushed for 217 yards and two touchdowns and passed for 180 yards and a touchdown in a 49-35 loss.
“Lorenzo was a really hard player to evaluate,” Farrell said. “They didn’t throw the ball much and when they did, he didn’t get much protection. I thought he played about as well as he could in their offense. He certainly ran the ball very well, but we didn’t see the progression in his throwing mechanics that we would have liked to have seen. That’s why he dropped a little bit. We still think he’s an excellent prospect.”
Having played for three different coaches also didn’t help Nunez put up the kind of numbers that grab the attention of college recruiters.
“He’s learned three different offenses in the last four years and that’s going to take its toll,” said Harrison High School coach Matt Dickmann. “We don’t have three of four Division I playmakers on the field with him like a lot of schools around here. We don’t have those kind of athletes.”
While Nunez doesn’t have the eye-popping numbers of Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, who set Georgia state records for passing yards and touchdowns at nearby Gainesville High School, Dickmann is convinced his former pupil can have just as big of an impact at the next level.
“Lorenzo has all the tools to a very good college quarterback,” Dickmann said. “He’s going to have great athletes around him and that’s only going to elevate his game. He can make all the throws, he’s accurate and has great vision and running ability. Let him develop, let him learn from Steve Spurrier, and he’s going to be just fine.”
“Lorenzo has tremendous upside,” Farrell said. “His ceiling is very high and he’s got the potential to come in and be a great quarterback at South Carolina.”
The Gamecocks need Nunez to develop quickly because there are few proven options at quarterback.
Sophomore Connor Mitch, walk-on Perry Orth and redshirt-freshman Michael Scarnecchia will battle for the starting quarterback position during the spring. The three have just eight pass attempts between them. Wide receiver Pharoh Cooper has thrown for more yards (83) and touchdowns (2) than either Mitch or Orth.
Mitch has the pedigree, throwing for more than 12,000 yards and 150 TDs during his career at Wakefield High School, located outside of Raleigh, N.C. But Mitch doesn’t have the mobility that Shaw possessed.
With no heir apparent in the system, the Gamecocks’ coaching staff urged Nunez to enroll early and take part in spring practice.
A growing trend among elite high school quarterbacks is to graduate from high school in December and enroll in college for the spring semester, allowing them to participate in spring workouts prior to their freshman season. Clemson’s Watson took part in spring practice last year, and the true freshman became the Tigers’ starting quarterback just a few games into the 2014 season.
Nunez considered enrolling early, but after exploring his options decided to abandoned the idea.
“We talked about it with coach (G.A.) Mangus and coach Spurrier for about two months,” said Lorenzo’s father, Del Nunez. “We thought we could make it happen and we tried everything, but it just wasn’t going to work out. They really wanted him up there in the spring. They felt like he would have a better chance to come in and play right away if he had a spring practice under his belt.”
Spurrier and Mangus, the Gamecocks quarterback coach, said during an in-home visit with Nunez last week that the opportunity to play right away still exists.
“Coach Spurrier said I’d get my chance, it was going to be up to me if I play next year or redshirt,” Nunez said. “That’s all I want. I just want an opportunity to compete.”
Nunez said he will enroll for summer classes in June.
“There’s a part of me that wishes I could have enrolled in January, but I can’t worry about that now,” Nunez said. “The only thing I can do is work as hard as I can, learn the offense and show the coaches that I’m ready to play.”
If Lorenzo Nunez eventually becomes a starter at South Carolina, he would be the first black quarterback recruited by Spurrier to start for the Gamecocks.
Syvelle Newton and Antonio Heffner both started under Spurrier when he first arrived in Columbia, but both were holdovers from the Lou Holtz era. Spurrier signed Strom Thurmond’s Aramis Hillary, but he never played a down for the Gamecocks and eventually transferred to Coastal Carolina.
As Del Nunez began to delve into recruiting and fan websites, he came across comments that said Spurrier would never start a black quarterback.
It was an issue that Del Nunez wanted to address early in the recruiting process.
“I didn’t know anything about that until I started to read some of those fan websites,” Del Nunez said. “I realized pretty quickly that those websites are places where people who don’t know anything act like they know everything.
“I did bring it up one time with coach Spurrier. We drove up to Columbia on a Sunday to talk about it and coach Spurrier spoke very frankly about the subject and that convinced me that Lorenzo would have every opportunity to play quarterback. It’s not about the color of your skin, it’s about how hard you work and how well you perform and that was all I needed to hear.”
Brandon McIlwain, of Newton, Penn., verbally committed to the Gamecocks on New Year’s Eve for the 2016 recruiting class. McIlwain, who is black, had more than two dozen offers, which included Ohio State, Clemson, Auburn, Florida, Penn State and Virginia Tech.
“I think it’s silly to say that coach Spurrier wouldn’t start a black quarterback,” Farrell said. “He’s going to start whoever helps his team win football games.”
At one point during the fall, the Gamecocks had a top-five recruiting class, according to Rivals.com. However, as the team struggled on the field and Spurrier hinted that he might retire in a couple of years, several high-profile recruits began to abandon their verbal commitments.
Nunez, who chose USC over Clemson, Ohio State, N.C. State and Nebraska, said he never considered backing out of his commitment.
“I never really thought about de-committing,” he said. “I had made my decision based on a lot of different factors, so I knew South Carolina was the right place for me.”
During a recent in-home visit, Spurrier told the Nunez family that he’d be around for “three or four years” in hopes of winning 100 games at South Carolina. He is currently 84-45 with the Gamecocks and has 226 wins overall as a coach.
“He seemed really energized to me and ready to go,” Del Nunez said.
“He talked about the future and getting a couple more coaching records. That seemed to be really important to him. I’ve been told he’s recruiting more this year than he has done in the past. I think he’ll be around for a while.”