Football

Next step for Gamecocks QB Mitch: Earn starting job for Spurrier

South Carolina quarterbacks Connor Mitch (6) and Michael Scarnecchia (12) go through a passing drill in front of head coach Steve Spurrier during a spring football practice on Tuesday, March 31, 2015.
South Carolina quarterbacks Connor Mitch (6) and Michael Scarnecchia (12) go through a passing drill in front of head coach Steve Spurrier during a spring football practice on Tuesday, March 31, 2015. gmelendez@thestate.com

Three years after lighting up scoreboards as Wakefield High’s star quarterback, Connor Mitch heads into preseason as the widely believed favorite to become South Carolina’s starter.

Before camp begins, though, he hesitated to make any predictions.

“That’s not up to me,” Mitch said in a recent phone interview. “I think every quarterback in this competition wants to view themselves as the favorite.”

Should Mitch turn out to be even half the player at South Carolina that he was for Wakefield, he’ll be among the better Gamecock quarterbacks in recent memory. As a four-year starter at Wakefield, Mitch threw for 12,078 yards and 153 touchdowns, good for second in state history. During a stellar senior campaign, the four-star recruit tossed 63 touchdowns and racked up 4,661 yards as he led Wakefield to an 11-2 record.

“We didn’t realize what he was doing (at the time),” said Ron Sink, Wakefield’s coach during Mitch’s senior year. “You sit back now and look at it and go, ‘wow, that’s an amazing number.’ ... That won’t be topped for a while.”

In order to start against UNC on Sept. 3, Mitch, a 6-3, 220-pound redshirt sophomore, will have to beat out redshirt junior walk-on Perry Orth and redshirt freshman Michael Scarnecchia, a three-star recruit. Incoming dual-threat quarterback Lorenzo Nunez also could push for playing time, Spurrier said recently during an interview with ESPN.

“I don’t decide (who starts) as a player,” Mitch said. “I’m just gonna go in with a positive attitude and hope to win the job. I’ve got to continue to show them I can lead this offense and this team.”

This offseason, however, presented a new situation for Mitch, who played limited snaps in two games last year.

“He was kind of the guy when he stepped on campus at Wakefield. He never really had to compete that hard in high school for a starting position,” said J.D. Dinwiddie, who preceded Sink at Wakefield. “Just based on what I’ve seen … he’s doing that now. He’s competing for that starting role, and it’s been an ongoing process for him.”

In April’s spring game, Mitch showed Spurrier why he belongs at the top of the depth chart. He went 10-of-16 for 183 yards – and tossed a touchdown to country singer Darius Rucker, whom Spurrier inserted for a celebrity play. Mitch had to make a bit of an adjustment on the play; Spurrier told Mitch the previous night he would be throwing to Kenny Chesney.

The audibles will soon get more difficult, but when Sink spoke with Mitch after the spring game, he found his former quarterback calm and collected. Sink said Mitch never got too high or too low as the Wakefield starter – an important quality for a quarterback.

Mitch, whose father and brother played college football, said his biggest challenges have been adjusting to the speed and a much larger college playbook. The playbook at Wakefield wasn’t simple, but it paled in comparison to Spurrier’s.

“It was definitely a lot more to learn,” said Mitch, who has returned to Raleigh and thrown with Wakefield’s quarterbacks over his summers. “Took me about a year to fully understand the ins and outs.”

The mechanics also changed. Mitch threw most of those touchdowns at Wakefield from a shotgun formation, and South Carolina’s playbook means Mitch will take plenty of snaps under center. Dinwiddie singled out Mitch’s footwork and dropbacks as an area on which he’ll need to focus. The presence of two experienced backs – David Williams and Brandon Wilds – should help ease the transition.

Bill Renner, whose son, Bryn, played quarterback at UNC, has worked with Mitch and thinks he’s a good fit for Spurrier’s offense.

“I’m not a big believer in how strong your arm needs to be,” Renner told The State. “It’s really more can you throw it on time and in rhythm. If a quarterback understands that, it really doesn’t matter how strong your arm is. Connor understands timing and the rhythm of getting the ball out.”

Sink echoed those sentiments and said Mitch was the only quarterback to whom he hasn’t needed to explain progressions or route concepts. Mitch already knew what to do, and he would repeat Wakefield’s practice drills at his house, essentially doubling his training regimen.

While figuring out SEC-caliber defenses won’t be as easy as Mitch’s pre-snap reads against Leesville or Millbrook, Dinwiddie agrees that Mitch is ready for the next step.

“He’s such a student of the game,” Dinwiddie said. “He was always mature beyond his years at the quarterback position. He exemplified the qualities you want.

“He’s got all the tools to be a great quarterback in the SEC.”

In just a few short weeks, Mitch might get the chance to prove it.

DiLalla: 919-829-4835, @AricDiLalla

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