COLUMBIA — He’s not the player returning at South Carolina with the most snaps at quarterback. He’s not even guaranteed to be the starter when the Gamecocks open the season Sept. 3 against North Carolina. But given that he exited spring practice as the top signal-caller on USC’s depth chart, all indications are that the quarterback position is Connor Mitch’s to lose.
Those are some sizeable cleats to fill, given his predecessors — the winningest quarterback in South Carolina history in Connor Shaw, and the single-season passing yardage record holder in Dylan Thompson. For the first time in a long time, the quarterback position at USC is largely a question mark, because Mitch played so sparingly last season as understudy to the indispensable Thompson.
Everyone knows his meager stats — 2-of-6 passing for 19 yards in mop-up duty against Furman and South Alabama. Receiver Pharoh Cooper saw more time behind center. And yet, Mitch did enough in the spring to hold onto the top QB spot in competition with walk-on Perry Orth and redshirt freshman Michael Scarnecchia. While his spring game wasn’t the best — his only TD pass went to Darius Rucker, who wasn’t exactly going to get popped in the end zone — head coach Steve Spurrier still called him “tremendously improved” over the year before.
And even though incoming freshman Lorenzo Nunez will factor into the QB mix in preseason camp, Mitch remains the best bet to start the opener in Charlotte. USC has won before with game-management quarterbacks like Phil Petty, who succeeded by taking advantage of what the defense gave them, and minimizing mistakes. It’s not difficult to see Mitch in that kind of role, at least until he grows more comfortable in the position.
What can’t happen is what befell Thompson last season, when an atrocious defense forced the quarterback to sling the ball incessantly because USC needed to score as many points as it was giving up. The No. 1 ingredient to a successful Connor Mitch is probably an improved defense, which would allow the Gamecocks to dictate tempo rather than rushing to score every time they have the ball.
If South Carolina can stop opponents, a lot can fall into place — chief among them the development of Mitch, who should benefit from having one of the best all-purpose players in the country in Cooper, as well as a stable of running backs led by Brandon Wilds and David Williams. The Raleigh native will touch the ball on almost every offensive snap, so he’s integral to USC’s success whether he’s the one actually gaining yardage or not.
And if there are hiccups along the way? Given that he has some options, expect Spurrier to be more willing to switch QBs mid-game, much like he did when he had Shaw and Thompson available at the same time. Someone like Nunez or commit Brandon McIlwain is probably the quarterback of the future at South Carolina. But Mitch is the quarterback of the right now.
JULY 3: No. 10 WR Deebo Samuel
july 4: No. 9 LB Jordan Diggs
july 5: No. 8 DB Rico McWilliams
Monday: No. 7 OT Mason Zandi
Tuesday: No. 6 DE Dexter Wideman
Wednesday: No. 5 DE David Johnson
Thursday: No. 4 OT Brandon Shell
Friday: No. 3 QB Connor Mitch
SATURDAY: No. 2