COLUMBIA — Connor Shaw’s ability to scramble was a major asset for South Carolina last season, and will continue to be this season. But there is an inherent risk in this style of quarterbacking, especially because Shaw is 6-1 and 207 pounds, and not nearly in the physical mold of mobile quarterbacks who can withstand consistently getting hit in the open field.
One game into this season of promise for South Carolina, and Shaw is already aching after suffering a bruised right (throwing) shoulder in Thursday’s season-opening 17-13 victory at Vanderbilt. Though coach Steve Spurrier said the injury is not structurally serious, it remains unclear if Shaw will be available for Saturday’s home opener against East Carolina.
This much is clear: Even with tailback Marcus Lattimore, a potential Heisman Trophy candidate, the Gamecocks likely will struggle mightily to win without Shaw, a junior whose knack for running zone read option plays dates to his high school days, and has often atoned for USC’s passing shortcomings.
But this is clearer still: Football is a violent sport, in which injuries often can’t be guarded against, even when a shifty and, by all accounts, intelligent quarterback like Shaw does everything he’s coached to do in order to protect himself while running.
USC’s coaches don’t want to eliminate Shaw’s feet from their offense, but they understand the risk of even seemingly innocuous plays like the first-and-10 with 3:15 left in the first half at Vanderbilt. Shaw looked to pass, but almost immediately dashed through a hole to escape a five-man pass rush and a collapsing pocket. He dove for a 2-yard gain to Vanderbilt’s 46-yard line.
As he fell forward, he momentarily disappeared, concealed by the black uniforms of four converging Vanderbilt players. Archibald Barnes, a 235-pound linebacker, hit him from the front. Linebacker Kellen Williams (215 pounds) and defensive tackle Barron Dixon (295) crashed hard into Shaw’s back. Williams’ left knee drove into Shaw’s right shoulder blade.
While Shaw walked off the field in pain, Spurrier wondered, “How in the world did he get hurt on that play?” Spurrier watched it later and said the hit was not dirty, the defenders were slowing down and the injury, as a consequence, “just happened.” And therein lies the rub for USC — with running quarterbacks who lack hulking physiques, injuries can just happen.
“He got in a wad and got down almost exactly the way he’s coached to,” Spurrier said. “We teach everybody to get all you can and get down. Some people think you ought to slide feet-first, but he did that against Nebraska (in last season’s bowl game) and the guy speared him, hit him in the head. I think the way he is running and getting down is the way you’re supposed to do it.”
By simple physics principles alone — two masses colliding, etc. — bigger quarterbacks like Cam Newton and Tim Tebow are better suited to absorb blows when running. This is not to say an average-sized quarterback cannot do it. He just must be smarter than the bullish types.
Former Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor, one of college football’s most effective mobile quarterbacks in recent years, is essentially Shaw’s size. Taylor missed two games in each of his first two seasons because of high ankle sprains suffered while scrambling, albeit both times on sacks while eluding a blitz.
As a sophomore, Taylor ran 13 times per game, counting sacks. The next two years: eight and 10. He became a more complete quarterback and stayed in the pocket for longer, keeping his eyes downfield, as USC’s coaches want Shaw to do this season.
Though Taylor did not put himself at risk for open-field hits as often, his coaches admitted good fortune also played a role in him remaining healthy. After all, Shaw did exactly as Spurrier coached him on that fateful run at Vanderbilt, and he still got hurt.
If you take out Shaw’s one sack, he ran 13 times at Vanderbilt for 96 yards. Five times, he gained 10-plus yards, including a 20-yarder on a zone read to set up USC’s first touchdown. His official total of 92 rushing yards accounted for exactly one-third of USC’s 272 total yards.
In his eight games as the unquestioned starter last season, he ran 126 times (15.8 per game) for 485 yards and eight touchdowns. He never ran fewer than 11 times per game as the starter. In his most recent game at Williams-Brice Stadium, he offered a brilliant 19-run, 107-yard performance against Clemson.
If he plays like that again in this, his first full season as the starter, can he remain healthy enough to offer an encore?
“He runs extremely well,” Spurrier said. “That’s a big part of our offense.”