Steve Spurrier is concerned about the health risk, but he is also concerned about his team. Specifically, about the position he loves to scrutinize.
The next two weeks may give him his answer, and it may not.
"Connor (Shaw) has got to get a look," Spurrier said after South Carolina lost to Auburn three days ago, and followed that up on Sunday by speaking of the dangers that starter Stephen Garcia puts himself in. Without being asked, Spurrier launched into a lengthy speech about the dangers of Garcia's head-first, head-down running, which may figure into his decision in two weeks.
"I'm really concerned about his health as we proceed that something bad will happen," Spurrier said. "There's nothing worse for a football coach or a parent to see a player out there not moving. As we know, those things can happen from putting your head straight down and going forward. We're trying to get him out of that."
Garcia does have a reckless approach to the running game, often charging into a hole and diving for extra yards when the safe approach is to slide in feet-first. That's enough of a target, leading with the helmet, but Garcia also often ducks his head, which leaves his neck exposed.
The threat of paralysis on the football is quite real, since even with a neck roll or stick-up piece on the top of the shoulder pads, there is no real way to guard the neck without limiting head movement. The game, through all levels, has seen too many young men suffer gruesome neck injuries that left them disabled.
Some (Kevin Everett, Adam Taliaferro) recovered and were able to walk again. Some (Marc Buoniconti, Mike Utley) did not.
When Everett was paralyzed in 2007 while playing for the Buffalo Bills, Spurrier talked about it during his weekly press conference. He stressed that he and the team had watched video of the hit and every player was told, over and over, that when making a tackle or finishing a run, keep your head up.
Garcia was on that team, although he redshirted the season. Once he took over the starting QB role, he hardly ever took the safe approach on runs, but often drew praise for diving or leaping for extra yards on the ends of his runs.
As recently as two weeks ago, Spurrier repeated what he has said in the past -- he tries to tell Garcia to find a little hole and "stick his head in there." "We encourage him to try to find a little hole in there and to fall forward," Spurrier said while previewing his team's game against Georgia.
The reversal of the tactic seems to have come about because of genuine concern over his quarterback's health, and also because of another reason. While no one but Spurrier knows what he is truly thinking, it seems to be popular opinion that he now has an excuse for not playing Garcia if the quarterback does not change his running style.
Garcia was benched in favor of Shaw during the fourth quarter after fumbling on two straight possessions, the first where he took a solid shot and was shaking his head on the field afterward as if to clear it. He went in again after that, though, and again fumbled.
Spurrier said the decision to remove Garcia was partly because he was woozy and partly because of the fumbles. Shaw came in and drove the team downfield, but tossed two red-zone interceptions that clinched Auburn's win.
"A little bit," Garcia answered when asked if he was woozy. "But Connor played pretty well. You just can't fumble twice in the second half -- that killed every single drive and pretty much killed momentum."
Shaw was non-committal about his chances to start, flatly responding, "That's not my call," to a question if he felt he put himself back into the starting discussion. He also said that he is preparing on every series as if he's going into the game, due to his personal mental approach.
Garcia was having one of his best games until the fourth quarter, standing out despite a brutal pass-rush and having no running game to lean on. Shaw also played well, seeming unafraid of what was being asked of him and performing up to task, until the interceptions.
USC returns to the practice field this afternoon for the first of three "light" days, designed to rest everybody as much as possible while keeping in game shape. Top-ranked Alabama comes to town on Oct. 9.
The decision on which quarterback will be facing the Crimson Tide on the first series may be decided today, or the night of Oct. 8. There are seven practice days for Spurrier to judge, watch and see if his concerns, over health and leadership, are alleviated.
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