Spring game bigger than an exhibition for some at USC

Connor Mitch, USC’s No. 1 quarterback in spring practice, will be among those seeing their first extended playing time at Williams-Brice Stadium in Saturday’s spring game. Douglas Rogers/Special to The Post and Courier/File

Michael Scarnecchia estimates that the largest crowd he’s ever played before is 10,000 people. That’s going to change Saturday, when the South Carolina quarterback trots onto the field at Williams-Brice Stadium for the annual Garnet and Black spring game.

“It’s probably going to be triple that, or four times that,” said Scarnecchia, the No. 3 signal-caller on the Gamecocks’ roster. “So I’ve just got to calm myself down, tell myself this is what I do. Even when the crowd’s there, it’s just a game. Just playing football, stick to what (quarterbacks) coach (G.A.) Mangus teaches us and what (head) coach (Steve) Spurrier teaches us, and just play the game.”

It may be little more than a glorified scrimmage — heck, some coaches refer to it outright as a “practice” — but USC’s noon spring game will be the closest experience yet to the real thing for the abundance of new or untested players who comprise nearly half the Gamecocks’ spring roster. Many of those suiting up will be seeing their first extended playing time before spectators at Williams-Brice Stadium, while others will be making that run onto the field for the first time.

“I’ve always said that’s a time for some players that you don’t know much about to shine,” Spurrier said. “Make a big catch, or a big run, or an interception. Get a tackle or two, or what have you.”

As usual under Spurrier, the spring game won’t be very complicated — the clock will run throughout the second half, there will be no blitzing, the defense will use simple man-to-man coverages. Many offensive linemen will play on both teams, given the dearth of healthy bodies at that position. And as they did over the first 14 spring practices, coaches will stress fundamentals.

“I want to see assignment and technique,” said defensive line coach Deke Adams. “We know it’s the spring game. We’re going to be very minimal in what we do, and I want to see those guys playing their assignment and playing with good technique and just trying to get better. We’re not treating it as a game. It’s a practice. We’ve got to get better.”

And yet, many players seem well aware of the fact that they’ll be playing in front of a sizeable crowd of people for the first time. USC’s top three quarterbacks — Connor Mitch, Perry Orth and Scarnecchia — had eight pass attempts combined last season, when Scarnecchia was a redshirt. The receiving corps is full of unknowns competing below All-American Pharoh Cooper. The defensive line has been rebuilt around newcomers like end Marquavius Lewis.

“I think it’s a real big day, because I haven’t really played much out here,” said spur linebacker Jasper Sasser, who played last season on special teams. “So I get to show what I can do, and go out there and play.”

Many players likely to play significant minutes Saturday could see their roles change when practice resumes in late summer. South Carolina had 15 players who missed all or part of spring practice due to injuries, offseason surgeries or precautionary reasons, and the bulk of USC’s 32-man signing class won’t be on campus until August. So the team on the field Saturday may not resemble the one that debuts Sept. 3 against North Carolina in Charlotte.

“The spring game will be a lot of players who have not played very much, out there having a go at it,” Spurrier said. “Hopefully no one will get hurt, and we’ll score a couple of touchdowns, and keep everything petty simple. So that’s the goal there. We’ll get our introductions in, get ready for the offseason, get ready for finals, and then get ready for the summer. Spring practice is only four weeks, and summer is two and a half months, so that’s more important probably time-wise than just the four weeks of spring ball.”

But those two and a half months of summer workouts don’t occur in front of spectators, which makes Saturday’s spring game loom large for players who will be trying to make an impact in before a USC home crowd for the first time.

“This is a chance to go out there and show what we can do, in front of thousands of fans, in front of the coaches,” said No. 4 tailback Darius Paulk. “Got to go out there and give them my all, and that’s all I can do.”

Gates open at 10:30 a.m., but due to construction around Williams-Brice Stadium, only the west stands (adjacent to Bluff Road) and north stands (adjacent to George Rogers Boulevard) will be accessible to spectators. Spring game admission is free, and parking is available at the State Fairgrounds or Gamecock Park lots for $10.