COLUMBIA — Watching Lorenzo Nunez receive his first extended action at South Carolina last weekend, Harrison High School football coach Matt Dickmann couldn’t help but wince. Not at the way his former quarterback was playing — but at how he was being referred to on television.
“The announcers were saying the other night that we ran the option,” Dickmann said. “We did not run the option at our school.”
When it comes to quarterbacks who are as adept with their feet as with their arm, misconceptions can often run as wild as Nunez did in his senior season with the Hoyas. The dual-threat signal-caller rushed for 1,193 yards that year while passing for 803, leaving some USC fans to wonder how he might fit in head coach Steve Spurrier’s offense.
Some of those questions could be answered Saturday, when Nunez makes his first career start against Central Florida. He’ll be the first true freshman to start behind center for the Gamecocks (1-2) since Mikal Goodman started against Ole Miss, Kentucky and Tennessee in 1999, and the first true freshman to start for Spurrier since Jesse Palmer did so against Auburn in 1997.
Rotating with Perry Orth in last week’s 52-20 loss at No. 7 Georgia, Nunez completed 4-of-5 passes for 18 yards but was most effective rushing the ball, where he led the Gamecocks with 76 yards on 10 carries. That’s often what he did in Dickmann’s offense as well — but out of necessity after Harrison lost its top wide receiver to a broken foot, and Nunez was tasked with carrying the Hoyas on his own.
“He did not have the people around him,” said Dickmann, who coached Nunez for two seasons. “... We just basically built the offense around him. We probably have more ways to run the quarterback in shotgun and under center than anybody else. But I knew that he would be fine, and I told him that. A lot of people questioned his ability to play quarterback, but that’s because he wasn’t surrounded by athletes other teams in this region had.”
Nunez passed for 1,200 yards as a junior, when he had a Division I-caliber target at receiver, who due to test scores wound up at Valdosta State. “His senior year, if we’d had those kids out there, he’d have thrown for probably 1,000 to 2,000 (yards) and rushed for 1,000. But as a coach, you have to take what you have,” Dickmann said. And what he had was Nunez, who would often roll out, make two to three reads, and then decide whether to throw the ball or tuck it and run.
Misdirection plays, belly runs, power runs — you name it, Harrison ran it for Nunez, looking for any way possible to keep the ball in the hands of its best player. In preseason camp at USC, Nunez admitted he occasionally still fought the urge to run rather than stand in the pocket and continue through progressions. Now? “Not really,” he said. Gamecocks quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus has seen the development firsthand.
“Becoming a pocket passer, or learning the pocket, you don’t want to go fitting a square peg in a round hole,” Mangus said. “But also you have to develop some stuff, and he works hard at it, and worked hard at it before he even got here. He knew there was going to be a different, kind of another level step he was going to have to take as a passer, and he worked on that at home with coaches and people before he ever enrolled here at South Carolina.”
Spurrier called roughly eight pass plays for Nunez against Georgia, and that number will surely increase against UCF (0-3) as the quarterback takes on more of the playbook as a starter. While some fans may question Nunez’s passing ability, Dickmann said coaches who came to Harrison to recruit him never did.
“I never had a problem with that with the college coaches. It was more with the papers, it was more with people who might think they know something about football saying that he’s not going to play quarterback in college,” Dickmann said.
“I never had to sell that. That was never even a question with anybody that came in to recruit him, from Ohio State to Oregon — who didn’t offer him, but came in to recruit him — to Tennessee and Kentucky. None of those schools said, ‘Hey, what do you think about his ability to throw the football?’ Because he can throw the football.”
Mangus agreed. “He can throw the ball, now. Just because he didn’t do it a ton in high school, that doesn’t mean he can’t,” he said. “The ball comes out of his hands good. He can spin it, and he showed it on a couple of throws Saturday. And obviously (against UCF) he’s going to be in more of a package that will let him do both.”
Dickmann will be there to see it, taking advantage of his team’s bye week to watch Nunez and another of his former players, UCF defensive lineman Joey Connors. Earlier this week, the Harrison coach texted his former quarterback to deliver a familiar message — one play at a time, move the chains, get first downs.
“That was always our philosophy,” Dickmann said. “I think he’ll be fine, but I think everybody needs to be able to give him the opportunity to grow as a young man. Being a freshman and having been there only three or four months, he is going to make mistakes. I hope they understand they have to take the good with the bad until he gets this offense under his feet.”