Redshirt freshman quarterback Connor Mitch has come a long way since he enrolled early at South Carolina and began practicing with the Gamecocks last spring.
Now with a year at the college level under his belt, the highly touted Raleigh, N.C., product could propel himself into a position to play next season with a strong showing in spring practice.
It came as no surprise when redshirt senior Dylan Thompson was named South Carolina's starting quarterback for the 2014 season.
But entering the third week of spring football practice, USC has yet to even hint at which quarterback will be named Thompson's backup for the upcoming season, which starts Aug. 28 when the Gamecocks face Texas A&M in the season opener.
The backup role has been especially important at South Carolina in recent years. Thompson passed for 1,810 yards and 14 touchdowns, rushed for 50 more yards and five touchdowns, and carried the Gamecocks to several big victories in relief of Connor Shaw over the past two seasons.
And before he cemented himself as the winningest quarterback in school history, Shaw backed up oft-maligned quarterback Stephen Garcia for nearly a year-and-a-half, gaining valuable experience he would rely on when he took over the starting job midway through the 2011 season.
Mitch, who passed for 4,661 yards and 63 touchdowns as a senior at Wakefield High School in Raleigh, is expected by many to succeed Thompson as USC's starting quarterback for the 2015 season.
But if recent history is any indication, the quarterback that wins the No. 2 job this fall will have the edge to become the starter once Thompson graduates, raising the stakes for this spring's battle.
Mitch entered the spring in a neck-and-neck competition for that role with redshirt sophomore Brendan Nosovitch, a former Parade All-American who completed two passes for 13 yards and rushed three times for 12 yards and a touchdown as the third-string quarterback last season.
Walk-on quarterback Perry Orth is also in the mix, thought to be just behind Mitch and Nosovitch.
All three know they are auditioning for the role with every snap they play, every pass in they throw and every decision they make in USC's 15 spring practices leading up to the spring game on April 12.
Mitch has embraced that competition, said quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus, who wouldn't have it any other way.
"We always want a competition at the position," said Mangus, who likes what he's seen from both Nosovitch and Mitch this spring. "To think there's any other way to go about it would be wrong."
Mitch didn't waste his redshirt season, Mangus said, but spent it getting familiar with the system and preparing to make a run up the depth chart this spring.
"He learned. He needed to do some other things, and I think he stepped it up in the winter time," Mangus said. "Once the season's over and spring practice comes for somebody like him, all of a sudden that redshirt's gone, there normally is a little lift in the attitude and all that."
Mitch says he feels much more comfortable running the offense in practice now than he did this time last year, his first semester on campus, when he struggled at times transitioning from high school play.
"Last year it was a whole different ball game coming out of high school," said Mitch. "I have a year under my belt, so I'm used to it now, and I'm really good with the playbook."
Mangus agreed, saying it was good to see Mitch and some of the other quarterbacks enter spring practice having retained the material they learned before the season ended in January.
"I think he had a good winter in the weight room, and the more grass time he gets out here, we'll see," Mangus said. "But yeah, his knowledge level is definitely improved over when he got here a year ago, and I'm glad it is, and it should be.
"If it wasn't, I'd be worried about him."
Key to Mitch's growth has been the mentoring he's gotten from Thompson. Following a suggestion from Mangus, Mitch reached out to Thompson for help learning the system. The two have spent time together going through the playbook, discussing reads and watching film.
"Any time you can get in here and watch film on your own is huge, and he was willing to reach out and be like, 'Man, just sit in a room, and if I get something wrong, just help me out,'" Thompson said. "I thought that was big for him just to know that I was going to be there. I wasn't going to try to be a coach to him. I was just going to help him if he needed it, and we did that.
"It was good time that we got, and I think any time you're eager to learn, somebody's going to help you. So that's the way he was, and it's helped him, I think."
For Thompson, a former two-star prospect who frequently sought advice from veterans like T.J. Johnson, Alshon Jeffery and Shaq Wilson in the early stages of his five-year career, it's nice to be able to take someone under his own wing.
"When you're young, encouragement is huge," said Thompson, adding that USC's recent teams have been full of approachable, helpful veterans. "(It was) something really small, but it went a long way."
Mangus says Mitch's biggest strength is his passing ability, the main reason South Carolina recruited him in the first place.
That much has come naturally for Mitch even at the college level, as he impressed in the spring game last year, completing five of his nine passes for 133 yards and throwing a 59-yard touchdown strike to tight end Jerell Adams.
But Mangus has been pleased to see "a bunch" of progress in other areas of the 6-foot-3, 217-pounder's game.
The coaching staff wanted Mitch to work on his running game this spring, and Mangus says Mitch, who is "a better athlete than probably he even thinks," has paid attention and been more willing to carry the ball on read-option and designed run plays.
And Mitch has stepped up his preparation from a mental standpoint, emulating the work ethic that made Thompson so effective coming off the bench, Mangus says.
"He understands football," Mangus said. "He's learning how to do the things and fit all the things you need to do within a 24-hour period to become a really good player at this level."
USC head coach Steve Spurrier says the coaches will review practice film of every quarterback on the roster this weekend, and he expects to have a full depth chart drawn up by Tuesday.
That depth chart will give the first indication of where the competition stands now between Mitch and Nosovitch, but nothing will be set in stone until the team takes the field against Texas A&M in late August.
Both Mitch and Nosovitch have done everything they've needed to do to give themselves a chance to win the job, Mangus said.
But the quarterback who takes the field next season as the backup - and maybe even the season after that as the starter - is likely to be the one who best uses the rest of the spring practice to show what he's learned and what he can do.
"We'll see how this all shakes out over 15 practices, and hopefully they're all going after that spot, and we'll see what happens," Mangus said.
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