COLUMBIA — As recently as three weeks ago, Lorenzo Nunez was a third-stringer on the South Carolina depth chart and Drew Lock was still two seasons away from taking over at Missouri.
Now, circumstances have conspired to force the two true freshmen into starting roles for Saturday’s noon game at Missouri’s Faurot Field. Nunez will make his second start for the Gamecocks, while Lock will start for the Tigers in place of junior Maty Mauk, suspended for disciplinary reasons related to violations of team policy, according to the school.
“He’s a very talented player,” Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said Wednesday of Lock. “We’re very thankful that we’ve got some experience that’s going to help him. Generally in cases like this, the first game for a starting quarterback, I’m more concerned with the people around him than I am about him.”
Missouri announced the suspensions of Mauk and backup left tackle Malik Cuellar on Tuesday night. The junior quarterback has started 18 consecutive games for the Tigers (3-1, 0-1 SEC). According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Lock will become the first true freshman quarterback to start for Missouri since Corby Jones in 1995, and the first for Pinkel in his 15 seasons at the school.
“Their other quarterback is a good player,” said USC head coach Steve Spurrier, referring to Lock. “They may be a more of a drop-back-type team with him, instead of out of the pocket running around with their quarterbacks. But we’ll have to wait and see. Most teams don’t change their offense all that much when they change quarterbacks. But the one they’re going to play now is an excellent passer from the pocket. Who knows, maybe he plays better than the guy before him. Only time will tell.”
Mauk’s trademark is his elusiveness, which has netted 145 rushing yards on the season. In four appearances this year, Lock has carried the ball just three times for minus-nine yards. The freshman from Lee’s Summit, Mo., has completed 15 of 25 attempts for 225 yards with one touchdown and one interception, with the bulk of those numbers compiled in a season-opening rout of Southeast Missouri.
“He doesn’t have Maty’s footspeed, but not too many quarterbacks do,” Pinkel said on the weekly SEC coaches’ teleconference. “He’s got to be who he is, and I think that’s how he’s always quarterbacked. I’ve coached a lot of quarterbacks, some with great speed, and some that don’t run well at all. And he runs pretty good. He instinctively has to do what he has to do, and focus on doing his job.”
As for the game plan, “I don’t think we’ll change,” Pinkel added. “We run the same plays with Drew that we do with Maty. They’re the same plays, so we just do what we do.”
Lock’s debut comes one week after Nunez became the first true freshman to start under center at South Carolina (2-2, 0-1) since 1999. Nunez passed for 184 yards and rushed for 123 in a 31-14 victory over Central Florida, handling “about everything” in USC’s playbook, Spurrier said. Spurrier expects Nunez to have a better grasp of the offense now that he’s taking first-team snaps in practice, as opposed to running with the backups as he was before being elevated to starter.
Spurrier can surely relate to the situation Missouri finds itself in, given that Nunez was USC’s third quarterback until starter Connor Mitch suffered a separated shoulder Sept. 12 against Kentucky. The freshman played two snaps that night, rotated with Perry Orth the following week in a 52-20 loss at Georgia, and is now the unquestioned starter behind center for the Gamecocks.
“You try to give your quarterback a game plan so he knows what’s going on, and let him go play,” Spurrier said. “Lorenzo Nunez last week, we didn’t know how he’d play, because he’d never played much at all. He sort of swept up the game against Georgia, but we didn’t throw much. We were just trying to get out of there without being too embarrassed. But last week we just let him play, and he threw the ball very well. ... I think as coaches, you’ve just got to let them play and see what happens.”
Mauk played a central role in Missouri’s rally from two scores down in the fourth quarter last year at South Carolina, where the Tigers won 21-20. According to the Kansas City Star, he had been away from the team Monday to be with his father Mike, who underwent surgery for colorectal cancer. He was expected to rejoin the Tigers for practice on Tuesday, the same day the school announced his suspension.
Now, Mauk’s position with the Tigers will be reevaluated Sunday, which Pinkel said is his standard procedure when dealing with suspended players.
“Maty’s going through some personal things, and that’s difficult in terms of that,” he said. “But for me ... I protect the integrity of the program. We’re going to be who we are, and we’re going to do the right thing, and we’re not going to manipulate things — well, we can get by with this, and play him, and get by on discipline another way. We don’t do that. We have rules, we abide by them, everybody lives by the same rules. And I think overall, that’s helped us build our football program.”