The SEC will see a lot of new faces under center this season, as the conference had four signal callers taken in the 2014 NFL Draft. Texas A&M will try to live life without Johnny Manziel, Georgia has to replace Aaron Murray, Alabama must move on from A.J. McCarron, and LSU will be without the services of Zach Mettenberger. That’s quite a bit of star power, but the team that might have the most difficult time replacing its quarterback isn’t in that group…
Playing on the road at Missouri with their backup quarterback, the South Carolina Gamecocks found themselves in a very difficult position last season against the number five team in the country. The Gamecocks had nine drives that all ended in failure: two punts, two fumbles, two turnovers on downs, an interception, a missed field goal, and the half even ended on them. The offense had some success moving the football but when push came to shove, it couldn’t finish the drill.
Trailing by 17 points with the clock winding down, who could the Gamecocks turn to? Connor Shaw had strained his knee the previous weekend, but after watching the Gamecocks fail to find the end zone in the first half, he asked to be put in the game in place of Dylan Thompson. Midway through the third quarter with little hope in sight, Steve Spurrier finally pulled the trigger and lifted his backup quarterback in favor of Shaw.
It took Shaw one series to get himself acclimated and then it was off to the races. After a punt on his first series, Shaw led the Gamecocks on drives of 65, 69 and 63 yards, as the Gamecocks scored 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to tie up the previously unbeaten Tigers of Missouri and push the game into overtime. In a contest that once looked like an impossible win for the Gamecocks, Shaw brought them from the depths of despair to victory as they won in overtime, 27-24.
That game summed up Connor Shaw’s career at South Carolina. He was a guy who left everything out on the football field. He was an underdog. He was a winner.
In Shaw’s three years as a starter, the Gamecocks went 33-6 overall and 18-6 in the SEC. Shaw amassed over 1,500 yards rushing in his career and over 6,000 yards passing. As a senior, Shaw threw 24 touchdowns and only one interception.
Simply put, Connor Shaw was the most underrated player in college football.
When interviewed by Athlon Sports, an anonymous SEC coach had this to say about the South Carolina quarterback job this season….
“We thought Connor Shaw was outstanding. The other kid (Dylan Thompson) got a lot of good reps. But Shaw was what made everything work there.”
On a team that featured the number one overall draft pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, it was Shaw, not Jadeveon Clowney, who was the heart and soul of the Gamecocks.
Enter Dylan Thompson.
Thompson is no stranger to playing college football, as he has played in over 20 games and has started three during his career as Shaw’s backup. Despite not getting the job done against Missouri, Thompson has seen his share of success in the garnet and black. It was Thompson who threw the game-winning pass in the 2013 Outback Bowl against Michigan with just 11 seconds left to give the Gamecocks a victory. He also led the Gamecocks to a 27-17 win from start to finish against Clemson in 2012 as he threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns.
One thing to like about Thompson over Shaw is that he has more big play ability. From ESPN Stats & Information from the Outback Bowl victory:
“With his 70-yard pass to Nick Jones, Dylan Thompson has three completions of 50-plus yards on 121 passes this season. Connor Shaw only has five such passes in 430 career throws.”
For Thompson, it doesn’t seem to be a question of talent but a question of knowing when to go for broke and when to live to fight another day. Statistics don’t tell the entire story, but when you look at Thompson’s numbers it’s clear that he needs to be more consistent. In 2012, his completion percentage was just 52 percent. In 2013, he raised it to 58.4 percent, but that would have put him tied for 11th in terms of SEC quarterbacks. With a TD to INT ratio of 4 to 3, it simply would not be good enough.
Another thing to like about Thompson is that he seems grounded. Here’s what he told Josh Kendall of GoGamecocks.com:
“I was thinking about how I could be the best leader, and I just wanted to approach the offseason as completely unproven. Let’s be real about it, I threw four touchdowns and had three interceptions last year. There is no reason for me to be hyped up.”
Not only does Thompson have big shoes to fill, but he will have to fill them quickly. The Gamecocks’ 2014 schedule starts off like the Kentucky Derby. First they must face the offense-minded Texas A&M Aggies. Then they host an underrated East Carolina team that beat two ACC teams in 2013 and returns a quarterback who threw for over 4,000 yards last season. Oh yeah, then they get rival Georgia, who will be coming off of a bye week and arguably has the best group of offensive skill-position players in the nation. It’s clear that right out of the gate, the Gamecocks’ offense is going to need to score a lot of points to win its first few games.
South Carolina is one of the favorites to win the SEC East, and winning the entire SEC is not out of reach for this team, but it all starts with replacing the heart and soul of the Gamecocks. Whether or not Dylan Thompson can do that will be the difference between winning the division and fighting to get into the first ever college football playoff and — on the other hand — staying home and watching the playoff on TV.