Finally South Carolina's starter, Dylan Thompson looks to seize his moment
HOOVER, Ala. – Steve Spurrier looked to his right on Tuesday and saw his old quarterback holding a microphone. Stephen Garcia stood poised to ask questions about Spurrier’s current quarterback. But because he is Steve Spurrier and because Spurrier and Garcia took turns driving each other insane for three-and-a-half seasons, South Carolina’s Head Ball Coach lobbed the first salvo. “I saw him on TV last night,” Spurrier said of Garcia, who is covering SEC Media Days as part of his new gig with Saturday Down South. “I asked, ‘Did he join the media, or did he join Duck Dynasty?’”
Garcia, whose flowing locks and facial hair qualify him either for membership in the Robertson clan or a seat on the Zac Brown Band’s tour bus, quickly rallied. The signal-caller who once led the Gamecocks to a win against then-No. 1 Alabama in 2010 asked the question pretty much everyone trying to handicap a wide-open SEC East race wants to know: How will South Carolina’s offense look different with Dylan Thompson at the helm?
Garcia’s ouster in the middle of the 2011 season ushered in the Connor Shaw era, which produced an unprecedented run of success for the Gamecocks. Shaw was the best quarterback in the program’s history, and all the while Thompson waited in the wings while occasionally relieving South Carolina’s starter when his damn-the-torpedoes running style sidelined him. Thompson and Shaw both arrived in the 2010 signing class. Shaw was the higher-rated recruit and the more polished athlete. Thompson was the big-armed diamond in the rough who wowed South Carolina coaches at camp but didn’t have an offer from anyone else except Furman.
Shaw backed up Garcia in 2010 while Thompson waited. Shaw won the job when Spurrier booted Garcia, and Thompson waited. With Shaw playing so well and lacking a prototypical NFL game, it became clear that if Thompson wanted to start full-time for the Gamecocks, it would have to be as a fifth-year senior. Yet still Thompson waited.
Most quarterbacks would have bailed before reaching this point, but Shaw’s disregard for his own personal safety kept Thompson busy enough to ward off any desire to transfer. There was the start at Clemson in 2012 when Thompson, who grew up in nearby Boiling Springs and attended his share of games at Death Valley, beat South Carolina’s rival. There was the late touchdown pass to beat Michigan in the Outback Bowl less than two months later. There was a three-and-a-half-quarter relief appearance in a win last September at Central Florida. “He's the only quarterback in the nation to beat UCF,” Spurrier said. (In 2013, that was quite true.) There was the fourth-quarter relief appearance at Tennessee.
Thompson doesn’t like to think about that last one, but he can’t help it. After a knee injury sidelined Shaw, Thompson took the field with South Carolina nursing a 21-20 lead. With three minutes remaining, the Gamecocks faced third-and-eight from their own 20. Tennessee had no more timeouts. A first down probably would have squelched any chance the Volunteers had. Thompson took the snap in the shotgun and rolled right. He saw a lane, tucked the ball and darted toward the sideline. At the 26, he met two tacklers. The tacklers won. “I needed two yards,” Thompson said Tuesday. “I didn’t get it.” Those final six feet bother Thompson to this day. He thinks about them during every workout.
When South Carolina guard A.J. Cann talks about the “little things” -- and Cann must have used that phrase 10 times in a 20-minute interview session Tuesday -- he’s talking about opportunities such as the one the Gamecocks had on that third-down play. Because if Thompson gains an extra two yards on that play, South Carolina beats Tennessee. If all the other results remained constant, the Gamecocks would have finished 7-1 in SEC play and won the SEC East. They would have met Auburn in Atlanta with a trip to the BCS title game on the line. That’s why Thompson can’t stop thinking about those two yards.
Of course, if Thompson faces an identical situation as South Carolina’s starter, the odds are he’ll be throwing for those yards or handing the ball to Mike Davis so he can gain them. That’s what Spurrier explained to Garcia. “We’ve got to keep him healthy,” Spurrier told his former player. “We probably won’t run him quite as much as you did.”
Spurrier clearly appreciates Thompson. The coach’s decision to declare Thompson the starter almost immediately after Shaw’s departure is evidence of that. Spurrier’s quarterbacks pass the football quite well, but torches are usually another matter. At Florida, Terry Dean and Danny Wuerffel duked it out to replace Shane Matthews. After Wuerffel reigned as the starter for two-and-a-half seasons, Doug Johnson split time with Noah Brindise to beat Florida State and then Johnson and Jesse Palmer traded the job. Post-Wuerffel, Spurrier didn’t seem settled until he finally decided Rex Grossman was his starter in 2000. Then he left for the NFL. At South Carolina, the Blake Mitchell-Syvelle Newton combo gave way to the Blake Mitchell-Chris Smelley combo. Garcia held the job for 2009 and 2010, but he lived in Spurrier’s doghouse. Spurrier didn’t truly find peace at the position until he named Shaw the starter.
Given Spurrier’s history, a smooth transition this time seemed unlikely. But that’s exactly what has happened.
Of course, Spurrier is never completely at peace with his quarterbacks. Thompson, who like Shaw and Wuerffel has the temperament to handle Spurrier’s constant needling, appreciates that. “He’s been great for me. He’s a perfectionist,” Thompson said. “You can come in and think you had a pretty good game, and he’s going to rip you. But that’s how he coaches. You just have to know that it’s coming and that it’s making you better.”
Thompson is also smart enough to know he can’t get too comfortable. On Tuesday, a reporter asked to hear Thompson’s Spurrier impression, because everyone who has spent more than 10 minutes around Spurrier has a Spurrier impression. “There are about 100 too many cameras in here for that,” Thompson said. “I think I’m in a pretty good spot with him right now, and I’d like to keep it that way.”
The only way to truly stay in a good spot as one of Spurrier’s quarterbacks is to keep winning. Thompson has played in enough critical moments that Spurrier believes in him enough to break out a golf analogy for him. “There’s a bunch of us that look pretty on the range,” Spurrier said. “Then we get on the course, and what happened to that range swing?” Spurrier has seen Thompson on the range and on the course. The swing remains the same.
There is a reason for that. “You encourage all your backup guys to get themselves ready to play,” South Carolina quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus said. “But when one actually does it …” For the past three seasons, Thompson has prepared as if he was the starter, not the backup. “He never looked at it that way,” Mangus said. “He always looked at it as, ‘I’m going to play.’ … He’s that guy.” That’s why Shaw had no qualms about alerting coaches to the pain in his foot on the final drive of the Outback Bowl on New Years Day, 2013. He knew Thompson, one of his best friends, could handle the moment. As he always did, Thompson had helped Shaw make adjustments and work through issues during the game. Though he hadn’t been playing against Michigan’s defense physically, he had been matching up with the Wolverines mentally. So when Thompson was dropped into the game in the final minute with the Gamecocks trailing by one, he had no fear. On his fifth play, he lofted a strike to Bruce Ellington for a 32-yard touchdown with 11 seconds remaining.
Though he has played in some big moments, Thompson has kept a low profile. He poked fun at his relative anonymity compared to the Jadeveon Clowney-led South Carolina contingent that came to SEC Media Days last year. “They said Clowney had a thousand people waiting for him,” Thompson said. “I think I had three.”
In a way, Thompson is the face of this year’s SEC. Or maybe it’s Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason, another fifth-year senior who waited patiently behind an all-time great in Aaron Murray. The league doesn’t lack for talent, but it does lack name-brand stars. “Everybody seems to lack for experience at quarterback,” Mangus said. “AJ McCarron and Aaron Murray and all those guys seemed like they’d been there for six years. That’s where the league has been for the last few years. It has been a really good quarterback-driven league. Now you have this new era.”
By fall, some of the players who spent time waiting patiently might finally become household names. While Thompson shares circumstances with Mason, it's the former that would like to be the one to follow in the footsteps of former Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley, who waited four years behind David Greene and then led the Bulldogs to an SEC title in 2005. “He’s got to pack his college career into one season,” Spurrier said of Thompson. “He’s the type of young man that really wants to make the most of it. Hopefully that will happen for all of us.”