COLUMBIA — On a team with no proven quarterbacks and a dearth of tested receivers, it was somewhat appropriate that the first receiving touchdown of South Carolina’s spring game was hauled in by a country music singer.
That was the case Saturday, when Charleston native and former Hootie and the Blowfish front man Darius Rucker burst from the Gamecocks bench and caught a 22-yard touchdown from Connor Mitch on the opening series of the Garnet and Black spring game at Williams-Brice Stadium. Head coach Steve Spurrier had promised a “big-time celebrity” as the event’s annual guest pass-catcher, and the top-selling country artist and avid Gamecocks fan certainly fit that bill.
“He was fired up about it,” Spurrier said. “I said, ‘Have you ever caught a touchdown at Williams-Brice?’ He said, ‘No, I’d love to.’ I said, ‘I can make it happen for you.’”
On a team with so many question marks, Rucker’s catch was the highlight of an exhibition the Black team won 14-13 after quarterback Michael Scarnecchia found Terry Googer in the end zone in the final seconds. Deebo Samuel had a 94-yard day to likely clinch the No. 2 wideout spot alongside All-American Pharoh Cooper, and linebacker Jasper Sasser had two interceptions. But the quarterback situation remained muddled on an afternoon when neither Mitch, Scarnecchia or Perry Orth was able to separate themselves from the rest.
Mitch, the No. 1 signal-called in spring practice, finished 10-of-16 for 183 yards and one touchdown — to Rucker, who wasn’t exactly going to take a hit from a defensive back. Scarnecchia finished 12-of-19 for 191 yards, with one rushing score and the game-winning pass to Googer, set up by a 33-yard strike to Samuel. Perry Orth was 11-of-19 for 137 yards, and both interceptions.
“Their stats are very similar every time we scrimmage,” Spurrier said. “I guess that’s the kind of team we are right there.”
Scarnecchia didn’t hurt himself on a final drive that included a 23-yard pass to Jacob August, a 17-yarder to Darius Paulk, and the game-winner to Googer with 28 seconds left. “That was real nice. That was fun and exciting, especially for the team,” he said. “I enjoyed it because we ran the two-minute offense, and we didn’t really work on it that much.”
But he was up against a defense that ran two simple coverages and wasn’t allowed to blitz. Spurrier added that Scarnecchia is sometimes too inclined to run with the ball rather continue through his progressions. And he reiterated that the quarterback competition won’t be settled until preseason, by which time incoming freshman Lorenzo Nunez — in attendance Saturday as a spectator — will be in the mix.
“They all did some good things,” Spurrier said. “Lorenzo Nunez, he was here watching the scrimmage. He’ll be ready to step into the competition as soon as he steps on campus in the summer. We’re still trying to see if one guy is clearly better than the rest. ... We’re always trying to figure out who the best player is, and if they’re pretty close in ability, you play more than one. Simple as that. We’ve still got a lot of time to find out who’s our quarterback.”
Cooper was on the field for the first snap, and then sat out the rest of the game. While a few other receivers like Googer, Carlton Heard and Shaq Davidson had their moments Saturday, Samuel appears to have separated himself. “We know he’s going to play and Pharoh’s going to play,” Spurrier said, “... but all these other guys are sort of in a wad right now.”
The same could be said at quarterback, where the competition for the starting job against North Carolina on Sept. 3 could go right up until game week.
“I consider us all on equal ground,” Scarnecchia said. “Throughout the spring we’ve all gotten a lot of equal reps. ... I think the competition, like Spurrier said, is not going to be set in stone unless someone separates themselves or it’s the week before the game. So we’ll have an opportunity to keep showcasing what we have and going out there, and working hard and trying to earn that spot.”
And they’ll do it without Rucker, who until the final seconds looked like he’d be the only person Saturday to catch a scoring pass. But give Mitch credit — his receiver may have been wide open, but the quarterback still had to make an adjustment on the fly.
“Yesterday in meetings, coach Spurrier told me I was throwing it to Kenny Chesney,” Mitch said. “So they called the play, and I’m looking over for Kenny Chesney. I guess they kind of switched it.”