South Carolina to start sophomore QB Connor Mitch in opener

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Connor Mitch finally won the quarterback job at South Carolina, and Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said Tuesday the sophomore has a chance to keep it well beyond next week's season opener with North Carolina.

Spurrier picked Mitch from a four-way quarterback competition that began during spring practice. Spurrier said Mitch played his way past junior Perry Orth, redshirt freshman Michael Scarnnechia and true freshman Lorenzo Nunez.

Mitch was expected to take over the position after the departure of senior Dylan Thompson, who set the single-season record for South Carolina passing yards last year. Still, no one on the roster has much college experience — receiver Pharoh Cooper entered camp with the most passing yards on the team from appearances in the Gamecocks' wildcat option.

"The competition was really close," Spurrier said. "But we've got to make a decision and we thought he was slightly ahead, maybe, and he's ready to go. We're going to give him all the support we can."

Mitch, a 6-foot-3 passer from Raleigh, North Carolina, said he had prepared himself for the job since the team returned from Thompson's last game, a 24-21 victory over Miami at the Independence Bowl last December.

"I always had faith myself," Mitch said. "The leader of the quarterbacks is the leader of the offense. That's what I had to have."

The last time South Carolina and Spurrier entered a season with so little experience at quarterback was 2008, when untested Tommy Beecher was picked to start, then threw four interceptions in the opener against North Carolina State before backup Chris Smelley took over.

Spurrier expects Mitch to have a better showing as starter on Sept. 3 when the Gamecocks face the Tar Heels in Charlotte, North Carolina. Mitch said he knows several players on North Carolina and can't wait to battle them next week.

"It's going to be awesome," he said.

Mitch has had his issues at camp. He threw three interceptions in two stadium scrimmage sessions this month, something Spurrier acknowledged must end for the Gamecock offense to succeed.

"As long as takes care of the ball and keeps his head calm, he can be the quarterback the entire year barring injury," Spurrier said.

Mitch played in two games last year in a mop-up role against Furman and South Alabama. He went 2 of 6 for 19 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.

Mitch said he maintained his composure throughout the summer, not letting a good outing by a rival or a poor one by himself slow his preparation. He was holding the door for Spurrier on Monday when the coach asked him, "You'd be happy if I named you the starter, right?"

"Absolutely," Mitch replied.

A day later, Mitch got his wish.

Spurrier could've easily handed Mitch the car keys weeks ago. Instead, he said the competition lifted backups Orth, Scarnecchia and Nunez and prepared them for action if needed this season.

Orth and Scarnecchia, like Mitch, are drop-back passers, while Nunez, a 6-3 freshman, is a dual threat who can run and pass well. Spurrier said last week there will be a place for Nunez in the South Carolina offense this season.

Mitch has the benefit of experienced playmakers in Cooper, a 1,000-yard receiver, and running backs Brandon Wilds, Shon Carson and David Williams.

Spurrier thought it important to put the competition to rest nine days before kickoff so Mitch's teammates can get used to him as the starter. Mitch had an edge, he said, in getting most of the practice snaps with first-team players.

Winning at summer camp is one thing, but Mitch anticipates a tougher task during the season.

"I can't sit back and get lazy," Mitch said. "I've got to win (the job) every day."

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