BLYTHEWOOD — As far as Steve Spurrier is concerned, there is no No. 1 quarterback at South Carolina — regardless of what the depth chart might say.
Connor Mitch may have topped the two-deep both exiting spring practice and entering preseason camp, but the USC head coach at his annual golf outing Wednesday warned against making any assumptions that the sophomore will start behind center for the Gamecocks’ season opener against North Carolina in Charlotte.
“Nobody said he was No. 1 that I know of. Did somebody tell you we have a No. 1? No, I’ve always believed in letting them battle it out over the summer,” Spurrier told reporters at Cobblestone Park Golf Club.
“Even my first year at Florida, when it looked like Shane Matthews was going to be the quarterback, he had to battle it out through the summer and won the job in preseason. That summer is a long time. I don’t think you say, ‘He’s our No. 1 guy.’ You go through the summer, and somebody may look better than that guy. ... I believe we try to let the guys earn it as we go.”
Mitch and walk-on junior Perry Orth split backup duties last season behind senior Dylan Thompson, who started every game and finished as USC’s single-season record holder in passing yards. Mitch attempted just six passes late in games against Furman and South Alabama, but held the No. 1 position on the depth chart entering spring practice, and again when the preseason two-deep was released earlier this month.
But those rankings evidently don’t reflect the opinion of Spurrier, who said Wednesday he remains unsure who will play the position when USC takes the field Sept. 3 at Bank of America Stadium. The Gamecocks will have four quarterbacks in camp, with Mitch and Orth joined by redshirt freshman Michael Scarnecchia and true freshman Lorenzo Nunez.
“Obviously, we need to find a quarterback,” Spurrier said. “We need to find a guy we can all hang our hat on, can say, ‘This guy is a tough guy, he’s got courage, he’ll sit in the pocket, he’ll take a hit, he’ll bounce right back up, he’s in the game.’ We need to find that guy. Hopefully, one of our quarterbacks will completely outplay the rest. That makes it simple for the coaches. Very simple.”
When preseason camp opens at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Spurrier said USC will work on two fields at its practice facility, with quarterbacks overseen by the head coach on one side and quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus on the other. That’s not unusual, Mangus added. “As many skill guys as you have, especially early, you try to get as many reps as you can,” he said. “That’s just another way to get reps.”
Quarterback is far from the lone question mark on a USC team coming off a 7-6 season. Spurrier said jobs also remain open in the secondary, one area overseen by new co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke. The Gamecocks finished 13th in the SEC in total defense last season, one spot above Texas A&M, leading Spurrier to make a $10 bet with Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin over which unit will be most improved this year.
“I’m betting on our guys,” Spurrier said.
Although USC has no proven receivers below All-SEC candidate Pharoh Cooper, Spurrier said redshirt freshman Deebo Samuel is in positon to start at the other wideout, and senior Jerell Adams has the ability “to become like an all-conference tight end.” He also praised USC’s class of five freshman offensive linemen, which includes Zack Bailey of Summerville.
“They’ve got a chance to be really good, all of them,” Spurrier said.
But as preseason practice approaches, the quarterback question continues to loom largest of all. Spurrier couldn’t help but mention Wednesday that USC’s leading returning passer isn’t a quarterback, but all-purpose star Cooper — who threw for 78 yards out of the wildcat formation last season.
And as indispensable as Cooper is, Spurrier doesn’t want him starting under center against the Tar Heels. As for who will, the competition among South Carolina’s quarterback hopefuls resumes next week.
“We think they can play. We think they’re all pretty good players,” Spurrier said. “... We’ll be practicing four for a while, and we’re going to sort of slim down to two of them getting most of the snaps whenever that occurs. You can’t get four ready, I know that. We’ll try to get down to about two once we get into preparation for the first game.”
— Spurrier sounds likely to get even more creative with Cooper, who passed, caught, and ran for touchdowns last season. “We’ll move him all over the place,” he said of the junior. “He’ll be some in the wildcat. We’ll put Nunez in there with him a couple of times, too, to see how that goes. But we’ve got to get the ball to Pharoh.”
That includes returning punts, which Spurrier said Cooper will continue to do. “That’s another way of getting the ball to him,” he said. “He’s pretty good back there.”
— Senior offensive lineman Brandon Shell of Goose Creek missed spring practice due to right shoulder surgery, but “he’s been doing just about everything” in the summer, Spurrier said. He added that Shell’s move from right tackle to left, where he’s set to replace three-year starter Corey Robinson, shouldn’t be that difficult. “If he can play right, he ought to be able to play left,” Spurrier said.
— Joseph Charlton, a true freshman from Columbia’s A.C. Flora High Schools, appears in line to kick off for USC. “I think we’ve maybe got a kickoff guy who can kick it out of the ballpark,” Spurrier said. Walk-on Sean Kelley, a junior who transferred to USC from Florida Atlantic and junior college, is the leading candidate at punter.
— USC this year will begin dispensing cost of attendance stipends to scholarship athletes. The amount, as determined by the school’s financial aid office, is $4,151 annually. That will be dispersed in bi-weekly installments of about $200, Spurrier said. “Our players will have a little pocket money, and hopefully some money to give their parents for expenses coming to games,” he added.
— USC now has five quality-control coaches on staff, up from two last season. Joining incumbents Scott Spurrier and Shaq Wilson are Brian Turk, former USC offensive lineman Travelle Wharton, and former secondary coach Grady Brown.
— Signee Octavius Johnson, a cornerback from Homerville, Ga., did not qualify academically, Spurrier confirmed. Junior college defensive end Devante Covington of Rockingham, N.C., is “still on the edge,” according to recruiting coordinator Steve Spurrier Jr.
— Citing a lack of space for parking and crowds at its new facility adjacent to Gamecock Park, Spurrier has closed practices to the public during the preseason. But USC does have a pair of Saturday scrimmages set for Williams-Brice Stadium that are likely to be open, he added.