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July 11, 2006

Battle to become Mitchell's backup will be fierce

The following is the first in a series of position previews.

Barring a colossal collapse, Blake Mitchell will retain his firm grasp on South Carolina's starting quarterback job in 2006.

Who his backup will be is far less clear.

Mitchell, a virtual unknown outside the SEC when the season started, surprised many people with a solid campaign in 2005, finishing among the top six SEC quarterbacks in passing yards per game (4th with 215.5 yards per game), total offense (4th with 203.6 ypg), and passing efficiency (6th with 132.4 rating).

He is the second leading returning quarterback in the conference behind Florida's Chris Leak in passing yards per game and total offense.

The USC coaching staff believes a more physically mature Mitchell will surpass those numbers this season as a redshirt junior.

"I think Blake is going to have a good year," USC quarterbacks coach David Reaves said. "It all depends on how he finishes the summer. Blake has had a great summer. He's really filling out his body. He's up to 215 pounds. He's really been working hard. He just needs to keep working and keep watching tape."

Mitchell completed 59 percent (186-for-315) of his passes for 2,370 yards and 17 touchdowns. Another season like that and he'll climb well within the top 10 on USC's all-time passing list.

Quiet and reserved when Lou Holtz was the head coach, Mitchell has emerged as one of the most vocal leaders on the club during spring and summer workouts. His leadership has drawn praise from his coaches.

"He's really starting to become the leader of our team," Reaves said. "We're really pleased with the way Blake is working right now. Blake has realized this is his team. We don't have a lot of seniors. He definitely needs to step up and be our leader on offense."

Added Steve Spurrier: "Blake is doing an excellent job trying to be a leader. He's organizing the guys, throwing the ball around. He's doing very well."

But make no mistake, Mitchell has plenty of room for improvement. He must display a better grasp of the system and learn to audible more, a critical requirement if you want to play quarterback for Spurrier.

"After last season, Blake needed to become more of a student of the game," Reaves said. "He needed to become more aggressive in his knowledge of the game. He needed to watch more tape and just keep progressing as far as learning the fronts and coverages and what plays we're trying to get in as an offense."

Mitchell performed well in the early and middle portions of the schedule last season but watched his production plummet over the final four games.

Beginning with the tense victory over Arkansas that made the Gamecocks bowl eligible, Mitchell was just 17-for-40 for 251 yards with five interceptions and one touchdown pass (the game-winning 42-yard strike to Kenny McKinley late in the third quarter against Arkansas) in the second half of the final four games.

But there is no question Mitchell was a more confident quarterback at the end of last season than at the beginning.

"Confidence comes with knowing exactly what you're doing on every play," Reaves said. "Right now, Blake is on track to know what we want and what we're trying to get done on offense."

While Mitchell is clearly the top quarterback, the battle for the backup job will rage from the opening snap of fall camp.

Redshirt freshman Cade Thompson outperformed Mitchell in the spring game, completing 10 of 13 passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns. But he must still add about 10 to 15 more pounds to absorb the hits a quarterback in Spurrier's system must take before the coaching staff will have enough confidence to put him on the field.

"Cade needs to pick it up," Reaves said. "He's been here all summer working. He just needs to gain some weight and keep working hard and eat a lot more."

Thompson's troubles putting pounds onto his 182-pound frame could open the door for heralded true freshman Chris Smelley from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to seize the moment. Smelley was one of the jewels of the 2006 signing class and after giving his verbal commitment in December, helped the coaching staff recruit other players.

"He has something special about him," Spurrier said. "He can move around and throw the ball very well. He has a chance to be a big-time player for us. But I've never seen him on our practice field. We'll see how he learns our system. If it looks like he's prepared to play and he's one of our top two quarterbacks, then he's got to go play. We'll coach him with the understanding that he has a chance to play this year."

Smelley has everything Spurrier looks for in a quarterback: size (6-foot-3, 215 pounds), arm strength, intelligence (30 on the ACT), leadership (started every game for his high school from the eighth grade through graduation) and winning attitude (59-12 career record as starter).

"He's a smart kid that really likes to study the game," Reaves said. "He was in an offense in high school where he got to throw a lot of balls. He's ahead of some of the guys we've signed in the past just because he's had a lot of reps throwing the football. He enjoys studying the game and going into the film room and watching coverages. That's the kind of guy we need."

He certainly has the statistics to support the accolades as one of the top prep quarterbacks in the nation. Smelley was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Alabama after throwing for 4,120 yards and 59 touchdown passes during his senior season.

Spurrier said this spring that he doesn't expect to redshirt Smelley. Instead, he wants the graduate of American Christian Academy to compete for the starting quarterback job as soon as he steps onto the practice field for the first time.

"Will Chris Smelley redshirt? We're not planning on it right now," Spurrier said. "But I don't know how fast he can run our stuff or how fast he can come around. We're going to give him a chance to push Blake if he can."

He set a new state record with 134 career touchdown passes, smashing the old record of 105 set by former Crimson Tide quarterback Brodie Croyle. His total of 10,385 passing yards ranks second all-time in Alabama.

"We're definitely going to coach Chris up and try to get him ready to play," Reaves said. "We'll have to see how he comes in and how quickly he picks up the offense during fall drills. He has the intangibles to be a good quarterback at the next level. It just depends on his progression and getting used to the speed of the game at this level."

After contemplating a transfer to a Division I-AA school this spring to improve his chances of securing playing time, redshirt freshman Tommy Beecher has decided to stay with the Gamecocks.

But Beecher continued to struggle this spring learning Spurrier's offense. The emergence of Smelley could further dampen the likelihood of the Concord, N.C., product ever seeing the field.

Reaves says he considers all three potential backups on equal terms heading into the start of fall camp in early August.

"Right now all of our backups are right there together," Reaves said. "We're going to get Chris Smelley ready to roll and see how the other two progress. That's going to be a battle when we start fall practice."

Senior walk-on Brett Nichols had his 15 minutes of fame in the spring of 2005 when he was briefly anointed the starting quarterback by Spurrier. But his time atop the depth chart was short lived as Nichols quickly fell back to earth.

Nichols appeared in one game in 2005 - the Auburn debacle - but it will take crippling injuries and a substantial and unexpected drop-off in performance from the four scholarship quarterbacks ahead of him in order for Nichols to see any action in his final season of college football.

Other in-depth position previews:

Cook(ing) up something tasty at tight end
Defensive line trying to find weight balance
Three new starters means fresh start for linebackers
Rice looking to top spectacular freshman season
White will anchor inexperienced offensive line
Gamecock backfield primed for success
Pressure's on Bennett to lead youthful secondary

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