Dylan Thompson waited four full years to take the wheel as South Carolina's starting quarterback, and now he's finally getting to enjoy the ride.
USC head coach Steve Spurrier said back in mid-January that the fifth-year senior would "without question" be the starter when the Gamecocks kick off the 2014 season against Texas A&M.
After spending two full seasons backing up the oft-injured Connor Shaw, Thompson practiced this spring with full understanding of the cavernous gap that separated him from USC's No. 2 quarterback - whoever that may be - on the depth chart.
And it showed.
He seemed to stand a little taller and fill his pads a little better than his teammates at the position. His passes were crisp. His reads were near perfect. And his command of the offense went unquestioned.
Once a super-sub who passed for 1,827 yards, scored 19 touchdowns and went 3-0 as a starter filling in for Shaw, Thompson has used spring practice to take a firm handle on the keys to the convertible that South Carolina's football team has become.
His ownership of the role was as evident as ever Saturday at the Garnet and Black Spring Game, when he turned in one of the best performances of any player in the game.
The Boiling Springs, S.C., native completed eight of his 11 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown and rushed three times for 17 yards to lead the Black team to a 28-10 victory.
"Dylan looked pretty good," Spurrier said after the game, adding later that the game's best play was the 30-yard touchdown Thompson threw to USC women's basketball coach Dawn Staley at the end of the first half.
"He does make good, quick decisions, and he is, I think, a good pocket-passer," Spurrier said. "But he can run out there occasionally also. But hopefully to keep him healthy, he needs to get the ball out of his hands quickly and make quick decisions. I think Dylan's good at that, so we'll see how it works out on Aug. 28."
Thompson said sliding into the starting role has been "a lot of fun," and that he might even feel less pressure as a starter than as a backup last season, when Spurrier often inserted him into games for just one drive.
"Last year was different because when I went in, I felt like it's got to be a big play soon, or I'm not coming back in sometimes," Thompson said. "This year, it's a different ballgame. You've just got to move the chains, get first downs and wind up in the end zone.
"That's what we're trying to do, and I think we've done a pretty good job of it this spring."
Without another quarterback on the roster breathing down his neck, Thompson's toughest competition this season - aside SEC pass rushers - could be expectations.
Thompson faces a challenge unique to any new starting quarterback in school history. He's attempting to fill the shoes of the winningest quarterback in school history on a team that finished in the top five last year and in the top 10 each of the past three seasons.
Thompson has looked forward to that challenge all spring, and he's prepared for it longer than that. For Thompson, having teammates with similar experience will help as the Gamecocks attempt to take the next step this fall.
"I think being here has been great," Thompson said. "I've been around all those 11-win seasons. I've seen the work guys have put in, the way coaches coach. And the players we have now - a lot of those guys have been here as well. And I think our offensive line, as we've said before, they were here through all that.
"And it's just a cool spot to be in because you have those guys around you."
For Thompson and the Gamecocks, key to next season will be playing loose and enjoying the challenge.
"We're just going to have fun, and I think we've done a good job of that this spring," Thompson said. "And I think sometimes you can get too amped up and too ready to go and focused, and you can't play. All of our guys, we just have fun, and when we're doing that, we're playing the best we can."
WHO'S NO. 2? After 15 spring practices, Steve Spurrier still can't say who his No. 2 quarterback will be next season.
Redshirt freshman Connor Mitch took the field with the second team Saturday at the spring game, completing seven of his 10 passes for 108 yards. Walk-on sophomore Perry Orth played as Thompson's backup on the Black team, going 6-10 for 86 yards, and Brendan Nosovitch was the fourth quarterback to take the field.
Nosovitch backed up Mitch on the Garnet team, going 4-11 for 97 yards.
None of the three did enough to be named the clear-cut backup for Thompson this fall.
"We'll let them go through the summer before we make up any decisions," Spurrier said after the spring game.
The race has been fairly even all spring. Mitch and Nosovitch entered the spring deadlocked for the No. 2 position, but were soon joined by Orth in the race.
Both Mitch and Orth spent time leading the competition, while Nosovitch struggled at times and fell out of Spurrier's favor.
"You know, Brendan, his ball flutters a bit," Spurrier said. "We're trying to work on getting that ball spiraling a little better with him. "
Spurrier praised Mitch and Orth's play at the spring game, but said a decision on who will back up Thompson could be a long way off.
"We might not make a decision until it's time for somebody to go in besides Dylan," Spurrier said. "Sometimes we operate like that too. Sometimes the guy standing closest to me might get to go in."
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