COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Talk about foreshadowing.
I sat down with South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier on Tuesday to talk about a number of subjects related to the Gamecocks football program. We talked about recruiting (which has been pretty good lately) and whether or not South Carolina could repeat as SEC East champions. He pointed out his office window and showed me the space on the façade of Williams-Brice Stadium where they will unveil the words "2010 SEC East Champs" during Saturday's spring game.
|Stephen Garcia has been suspended twice since the start of spring practice. (Getty Images)|
But invariably when you talk to The Head Ball Coach, the subject turns to Stephen Garcia, his star-crossed quarterback.
"I wish we had a great quarterback -- a really great quarterback," Spurrier said. "At times Stephen Garcia can look like a great quarterback. But then he loses his focus a bit and makes it difficult on all of us."
Less than 24 hours later Garcia, the rising senior from Tampa was suspended for the fifth time in his career at South Carolina. The announcement was not made by Spurrier, but by athletic director Eric Hyman, which in itself was telling.
It was the second time since the start of spring practice that Garcia has been suspended. He sat out the entire first week of the spring for an incident in Atlanta (girl in the room after curfew) during the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Garcia, as he always is, was contrite and promised no more screw-ups.
"It was a bad decision on my part down in Atlanta," he told the media on March 24. "Nothing bad is going to happen again. That is a guarantee."
Garcia couldn't make it to the end of spring practice. Media reports said that Garcia smelled of alcohol during a life skills and character education class on Tuesday. Talk about irony. It is not the first time Garcia has gotten in trouble because of alcohol.
Here is the reality on Stephen Garcia. I have known Spurrier since he was the offensive coordinator at Duke in the early '80s. He has never, ever given a player as many second, third and fourth chances as he has given Garcia. During his Florida days he would quickly banish a player who didn't follow the rules, especially a quarterback.
"It's fair to say I haven't had a player test me as much as Stephen has," Spurrier said.
There is a simple reason for that. As much as Spurrier wanted to give the job to freshman Connor Shaw last season, he couldn't. Spurrier likes Shaw because he is all the things Garcia is not: studious, dedicated, unselfish and interested in getting better.
But Garcia was the best quarterback South Carolina had and the one capable of making all the throws in Spurrier's offense. Garcia threw for 3,059 yards and 20 touchdowns last season. He also threw 14 interceptions. There were times last season when Spurrier refused to throw the football and relied on freshman running back Marcus Lattimore because he didn't trust Garcia to take care of the ball. He was still making the same mistakes in 2010 that he made in 2008 as a redshirt freshman. It drove Spurrier nuts but he held his nose and kept Garcia on the field because he gave South Carolina the best chance to win.
"Some of the decisions he makes you simply can't explain," Spurrier said. "And when you ask him to explain he just says 'I messed up.'"
So what happens now? Does Garcia get yet another chance or is this it? Does Hyman put his foot down and take the ultimate decision away from Spurrier? With Garcia the Gamecocks have a shot to repeat in the SEC. They have one of the nation's best backs in Lattimore, who was third in the SEC in rushing (1,197 yards) as a freshman. Alshon Jeffery led the SEC in receiving with 88 catches for 1,517 yards. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore would start for any team in America.
And South Carolina will add defensive end Jadeveon Clowney of Rock Hill, S.C., rated by many services as the No. 1 recruit in the country, to that list of great players. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who is not known to gush about players, told me Tuesday that Clowney "is the most physically gifted player I have seen in my 30-plus years as a coach."
For the second straight year the SEC East is going to be wide open. Florida is starting over under a new coaching staff. Georgia is coming off a 6-7 season and Mark Richt is feeling some heat. Tennessee is coming off a 6-7 season but feels better in its second year under Derek Dooley, but the Vols are very small on defense. Kentucky lost one of the best playmakers in the SEC (Randall Cobb) and Vanderbilt has a new coach in James Franklin.
With Garcia, South Carolina would probably be the preseason pick of the media next July in Birmingham. I'm not sure the same can be said if Garcia does not return and Shaw is the man.
As we finished up our visit, Spurrier said this:
"I think I'm going to let Connor throw it about 30 times in the spring game."
If Garcia is done, Shaw will have to throw it a bunch between now and Sept. 3, when the Gamecocks open with East Carolina.