South Carolina won’t have rising senior quarterback Connor Shaw during spring practices, opening the door for Dylan Thompson to further prove himself a worthy challenger for the starting job, which has belonged to Shaw since the sixth game of the 2011 season.
Shaw will undergo surgery on his left foot Friday and is “not expected to be available for spring ball,” an athletic department spokesman said Thursday.
USC team doctor Jeff Guy deferred to the spokesman’s comment for Thursday, but said he would have more information Friday.
Shaw sprained his left foot Oct. 27 against Tennessee and played with the injury for the next two games, Nov. 10 against Arkansas and Nov. 17 against Wofford. He tweaked his foot at the end of the Wofford game and didn’t play at all in the regular season finale at Clemson, as Thompson led the Gamecocks to a win by throwing for 310 yards and three touchdowns.
Shaw rested his foot after the Clemson game and his coaches proclaimed him 100 percent healthy by the time he started Tuesday’s Outback Bowl victory over Michigan. But Thompson went into the game knowing Shaw’s foot could be easily aggravated, and that’s what ended up happening.
Coach Steve Spurrier, who coordinates the offense, said before the game that Thompson would play during the first half. Thompson played one full drive, which comprised four snaps, in the second quarter. Then he came in for one play later in the quarter when Shaw went to the sideline after being sacked. Thompson also played two snaps on the first drive of the second half, though Shaw started that possession.
After that, Thompson did not get back in the game until the final five plays, as Shaw limped off after driving USC from its own 30 to Michigan’s 43. Thompson capped the drive by standing in the pocket and taking a hard hit as he threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Bruce Ellington with 11 seconds left. It boosted the Gamecocks to a 33-28 win and their second consecutive 11-2 season.
Thompson did attempt a two-point conversion after the touchdown, but his incomplete pass on that play does not count in the official stats. In Thompson’s 12 snaps against Michigan other than two-point conversion, he completed seven of 10 passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns, including a four-yarder to Ace Sanders on Thompson’s first drive, in the second quarter. That touchdown came immediately after a 70-yard strike to Nick Jones.
The Gamecocks will return all of their significant wide receiver contributors, so that position has few, if any, questions surrounding it. But after the bowl game capped a season in which Thompson led USC to wins over East Carolina and Clemson by playing all of those games, and then threw one of the most important touchdowns in school history against Michigan, many observers will wonder if Thompson might have a larger role in 2013, when he will be a junior.
Thompson appeared in all but two games this season and was shaky in his first outing, the season opener at Vanderbilt, when Shaw injured his right (throwing shoulder). Thompson threw three incomplete passes that night. Then he threw for 330 yards the next week against ECU. In the following game, he played the second half of a win over UAB, after Shaw aggravated his shoulder. Thompson threw for 177 yards and two touchdowns that day.
Thompson received no significant action in the next four games. Then Shaw was benched for the second half of a loss at Florida, and Thompson completed eight of 20 passes for 83 yards and an interception in relief. Of all the games in which Thompson received major action this season (ECU, UAB, Florida, Clemson and Michigan), Florida and Michigan had by far the best defenses, but Michigan’s cornerback group was depleted by an injury and a suspension.
After the Florida game, in which Thompson was not exactly impressive, he got no noteworthy playing time in the next three games, then delivered a masterful performance against Clemson and was the late-game hero against Michigan.
Shaw also performed very well against Michigan, as he did for the most part this season. He threw for 224 yards and two touchdowns against the Wolverines, while completing 18 of 26 passes, and ran for 96 yards, including a long of 64. Neither quarterback threw an interception in the bowl game.
Shaw wasn’t at his best in road games against LSU and Florida, which were USC’s only losses this season. Those also were the two best defenses USC played all year. At LSU, Shaw was 19-of-34 passing for 177 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. At Florida, before being benched, Shaw was nine of 20 for 72 yards, and lost a fumble on the game’s first snap that led to a Florida touchdown and began a disastrous day for USC.
But Shaw finished the season with a completion percentage of 67.5 (No. 12 nationally) for 1,956 yards, 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His yards per attempt (8.6) bettered last season’s 7.7. Shaw this season ranked No. 11 nationally in yards per attempt, but contributing to that was the fact that he attempted just 20.7 passes per game, on average.
That still is two more pass attempts than he averaged last season, and remember that his per game average this season was skewed by playing just a half against UAB and Florida.
With tailback Marcus Lattimore for the past three seasons (though just parts of the past two seasons, because he was hurt), USC has leaned largely on running the ball. In 2012, USC ran the ball 491 times and passed it 365 times – a 57.4 run play percentage that was actually lower than last season’s 63.6 and more on par with the previous season’s 57.3.
Thompson in 2012 completed 52 percent of his passes for 1,027 yards, 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. He averaged 8.1 yards per completion.
USC is losing reserve quarterbacks Seth Strickland and Andrew Clifford. If Shaw can’t participate in spring practices, the quarterbacks behind Thompson will be Brendan Nosovitch, who redshirted as a freshman in 2012, and recruit Connor Mitch, who will enroll this month.
It will be interesting to see Spurrier’s offensive approach in 2013. Shaw’s foot injury doesn’t seem like something that will cause him to miss any game action in 2013, at least not at this point. So Spurrier will have two capable quarterbacks and a stable of receivers available next fall, presuming Ellington decides to continue playing football, and most people would be surprised if he dropped the sport.
Spurrier, a former quarterback, has long preferred (or at least relished) big passing plays, which were a staple of his offense at Florida. But he understands the importance of establishing the run, especially in today’s Southeastern Conference, known for its quick and powerful defensive linemen who can make minced meat of a quarterback who stands in the pocket too long.
Moreover, USC is losing Lattimore to the NFL, and No. 2 tailback Kenny Miles was a senior in 2012. So the Gamecocks will enter 2013 leaning on sophomores Mike Davis, Shon Carson and Brandon Wilds. The competition between those three for Lattimore’s old job will be a huge storyline of spring practices, and could determine just how Spurrier crafts his offense in 2013.
Spurrier hasn’t been shy about relying on two quarterbacks, particularly during his time at Florida. After the bowl game, all he would say about his future quarterback situation was this: “We tried to tell Connor (before the bowl), ‘It’s your game.’ And it was his game, but Dylan was going to play, and (Shaw) understood that. It worked out beautifully, as it turned out. No one knew it was going to turn out like this. We will go through the spring and we always have competition for every position.”
Now that there probably won’t be competition between Shaw and Thompson this spring, and Thompson is on track to get all the first-team snaps, everyone will wonder between now and August just how USC’s quarterback situation for the 2013 season will turn out.