on January 1, 2010 by in Uncategorized, Comments (0)

Garcia grows into South Carolina leader

COLUMBIA — Stephen Garcia figured he was just having fun before last year’s Outback Bowl. Steve Spurrier thought differently.

Garcia, when asked by his coach what he did the night before, responded that he played the video game, “Call of Duty,” to unwind. Spurrier lost it, snapping that his freshman quarterback should’ve been studying film.

“I’m not going to tell you what he said, but it wasn’t good,” Garcia said recently.

Garcia’s performance in a 31-10 loss to Iowa last New Year’s Day wasn’t very good, either. He threw three interceptions and lost a fumble, ruining his Tampa, Fla., homecoming and putting his future as South Carolina’s leader in jeopardy.

Fast forward nearly a year. A poised, confident Garcia is clearly in control as the Gamecocks (7-5) prepare to face Connecticut (7-5) in Saturday’s Papajohns.com Bowl.

Garcia was second in the Southeastern Conference with 227.8 yards passing per game, ahead of league standouts like Florida’s Tim Tebow, Alabama’s Greg McElroy and Ole Miss’ Jevan Snead. Garcia also cut down his mistakes, totaling just nine interceptions in 394 attempts.

A victory this week would be South Carolina’s first bowl win since 2006 and validate Garcia’s status as one of the SEC’s rising quarterbacks.

“I think everybody’s having a lot more fun,” Garcia said.

Especially Garcia, whose road to the starting spot took several negative turns.

Garcia came to South Carolina in January 2007 with long hair, a reputation as one of the country’s top prospects and a cocky attitude that success would come quickly. Instead, he had three run-ins with the law over his first 15 months on campus and was suspended for his first two spring practices.

When Garcia finally got in the mix in 2008, he looked lost. He played in eight games, starting three, and had eight interceptions in 122 attempts. The Outback Bowl was a complete disaster. Worse yet, it came in front of family and friends eager to see how the prep star had progressed.

Garcia had enjoyed being back home. “I guess a little too much,” he said. “But (the loss) happened. I’m not worried about it. It was last year, a lot of bad things happened last year.”

Spurrier acknowledged Garcia wasn’t ready.

“That’s all you can say,” he said. “He’s much more prepared now. He’s thinking a lot better. He should play a lot better this game.”

First-year quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus, a former Florida QB and coach for Spurrier, has played a key role in Garcia’s development.

Mangus gave Garcia steadiness and direction. Garcia watched more film. He bonded with his teammates during summer workouts. When the games started, Garcia was ready.

“It was much needed,” he said of Mangus’ push. “I learned a lot going into this year. He helped me progress throughout the whole year.”

Garcia also began showing the leadership necessary for South Carolina to succeed in the SEC. He leaped Kentucky defender Cartier Rice for a first down on third-and-4 that allowed the Gamecocks to run out the clock on a 28-26 victory in October.

Against then-No. 1 Florida a month later, Garcia ran for 5 yards on fourth-and-2 in Gator territory with South Carolina driving down just 17-14. But he threw an interception three plays later that helped Florida grab the momentum in a 24-14 win.

Both instances, Spurrier said, prove how far Garcia’s come — and how high he can still rise.

“He still can learn a lot more,” Spurrier said.

Garcia’s happy to carry more confidence into this bowl trip than a year ago. He’s hopeful for a strong showing, as much for the Gamecocks to close the season with two straight victories as to show off his improved skills.

He’s already well ahead of last year’s bowl preparations.

“We’re not bringing the video-game system with us,” Garcia said, smiling.