COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) – It’s the prime question of football at any level and one South Carolina coach Will Muschamp has wrestled with since taking the job last December: Who’s the quarterback?
Long gone are the days when the Gamecocks could count on a Connor Shaw or Dylan Thompson to win the position and hold onto it for a year or more. Now, things are jumbled enough that Muschamp has said no one should be surprised if he uses up to three quarterbacks this year.
“I think, at the end of the day, whether we play one or two or three, we’re going to do what we need to do to be successful,” Muschamp said this week.
South Carolina has had its most success when one player grabs the position and doesn’t let it go.
Shaw, whom Steve Spurrier has praised as the best quarterback in school history, took over for good early in the 2011 season and finished with a 27-5 mark as a starter. No surprise that the Gamecocks had their best record with Shaw in control, going 11-2 for three straight seasons between 2011-13.
Shaw’s patient backup, Thompson, moved behind center in 2014 and, while South Carolina did not have as good a showing, it finished 7-6 for a seventh straight winning season.
But injuries, inexperience and upheaval took over last fall. Connor Mitch, the starter coming out of fall camp, played in the first two games before getting hurt and never returning. He transferred after the season.
Onetime walk-on Perry Orth and freshman Lorenzo Nunez also started a year ago, managing a turbulent season in which Spurrier resigned midseason and the Gamecocks finished 3-9.
Orth led the way with eight starts. He finished 10th among Southeastern Conference quarterbacks with 160.8 yards passing per game.
“The slate is completely clean,” Orth said. “It’s a tossup and, hopefully, I can come out on top.”
Muschamp said he would like to whittle the race to two after the team’s first major stadium scrimmage on Aug. 13. The Gamecocks start the year with two SEC road games, at Vanderbilt and at Mississippi State, so Muschamp does not want an unsettled situation behind center.
A look at South Carolina’s quarterback contenders:
THE VETERAN: Orth, a fifth-year senior, once worked in a Publix grocery store to pay for college before getting a scholarship last season. He’s used that resolve to work his way to the top of the depth chart. Orth went 1-7 as a starter last fall but perhaps was more important in keeping the Gamecocks together after Spurrier’s sudden departure. Orth’s best showing came in the season’s final game, when he threw three touchdown passes in a closer-than-expected 37-32 loss to No. 1 Clemson.
THE YOUNG GUYS: Brandon McIlwain and Jake Bentley are two promising freshmen. McIlwain was a likely high-round MLB draft pick who stuck with the Gamecocks instead of going pro. He enrolled in January and did enough in the spring to be co-No. 1 with Orth entering fall camp. Bentley would’ve been a high school senior this year but had enough credits to graduate and enroll in college this summer. Bentley, whose brother Chas Dodd was Rutgers’ starting quarterback, had an offer from Alabama but chose to follow his father, Gamecocks running back coach Bobby Bentley, to South Carolina.
THE WILDCARD: Nunez is a lanky, 6-foot-3 sophomore with a dual-threat skillset more in line with Shaw. Perhaps that’s why Spurrier put him in there to start two games until injuries sent him to the sideline. Muschamp and co-offensive coordinator Kurt Roper have a willing Nunez working and excelling in practice at receiver. But both say Nunez is too talented not to have a package ready to go with him running the offense.