AU FOOTBALL 2010 OPPONENT PREVIEWS: Garcia on thin ice with Spurrier, Gamecocks

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth in a series previewing Auburn’s 2010 football opponents. This week: South Carolina (Sept. 25 ). The series will run weekly.

It’s tough to find an SEC quarterback — let alone a returning starter at any major program — who has had a tougher offseason than South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia.

And, surprisingly, the man behind Garcia’s frustration has been his own coach, 65-year-old Steve Spurrier.

Garcia hasn’t been great since being dubbed the South Carolina quarterback of the future after seeing action in five games as a redshirt freshman in 2008. But he certainly hasn’t been terrible.

Garcia was second only to Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett in passing yards per game (220.2 ypg) and ranked third in total offense (234.5 ypg) last season. He started all 13 games and barely let his backups see the field, even during garbage time, for the Gamecocks, who started out strong by cracking the AP Top 25 after a 5-1 start, but faltered down the stretch to finish 7-6.

The end of the season, it seems, is what did Garcia in the most and what has motivated Spurrier to open up the quarterback race heading into the fall.

South Carolina drew the short straw among bowl-eligible SEC schools when it was sent to Birmingham for the far-from-glamorous PapaJohns.com Bowl. The Gamecocks then played like a team that didn’t want to be there, losing, 20-7, in uninspired fashion to Connecticut. Garcia was at the center of South Carolina’s struggles, completing just 16 of his 38 passes for 129 yards with a fumble and an interception.

Garcia and Spurrier both took the loss personally. Spurrier said it was a “sad, sad effort” and apologized, unprompted, to South Carolina’s fans one month later during his National Signing Day press conference.

“First of all I apologize again to Gamecock fans for our bowl game,” Spurrier said. “I compliment our coaches for overcoming it in recruiting.”

Now, Spurrier is floating the idea of starting true freshman Connor Shaw over Garcia if he decides it’s the key to overcoming another ho-hum season in Columbia.

Spurrier rode Garcia through the spring both in camp and through the media, questioning everything from his skill set to his work ethic.

“I’m prepared to play the best quarterback,” Spurrier told ESPN.com’s Chris Low one week before the Gamecocks’ spring game, where Garcia completed eight of his 15 passes for 79 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

“Obviously, your quarterback has got to have a strong commitment. He’s got to reflect what the team’s about, and we’re having a tough time getting Stephen to really show that he’s got a strong commitment to wanting to be the best quarterback and the best player and the best person that he can be.

“Hopefully, he’ll change. But thus far, he hasn’t shown it.”

Garcia has bristled a bit at Spurrier’s remarks, but said he realizes the motivation behind them. He stepped away from the school after the semester and has spent the entire month of May at his parents’ home back in Florida and working out at his old high school. He’ll return at the end of the month to participate in voluntary workouts with what Spurrier hopes is a refreshed attitude.

He’s hopefully ignored the other voices of criticism that have emerged since his up-and-down spring game. Syndicated radio host Paul Finebaum recently called Garcia “the worst quarterback in the history of the SEC” and college football expert Phil Steele left Garcia off his four-deep preseason All-SEC teams. Florida quarterback John Brantley and Auburn’s Cameron Newton were both slotted ahead of Garcia even though neither has started a game at the Division I level.

“We’re hoping Stephen Garcia will have a good summer,” Spurrier said in a May 10 article in The State (Columbia, S.C.). “We give our guys a plan to follow through the summer. Hopefully, this year, he’ll follow it. He hasn’t followed it very well other years.”

While conceivably burying Garcia, Spurrier has jumped at every opportunity to build up Shaw, who enrolled for the winter semester and participated at spring practice. The three-star recruit from Flowery Branch, Ga., completed 4-of-8 passes for 59 yards and a touchdown in South Carolina’s spring game.

“Connor’s one of these guys that tries to learn everything there is to learn. He’s ready to play right now, and he’s only been here three or four months,” Spurrier said in The State article. “Some of our guys have been here two years and don’t know anything.”

agribble@oanow.com| 737-2561

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