August 12, 2007

First Steps: Culliver, Garcia begin journey

Chris Culliver and Stephen Garcia were probably the two most highest prized recruits to sign with South Carolina last February.

At times during Saturday's scrimmage they displayed the athleticism and football skills that made them the envy of dozens of schools last winter.

At other times, though, they revealed there's still plenty to learn before becoming consistent and productive contributors to the Gamecocks.

As a result of missing spring practice because of a suspension arising from two arrests shortly after arriving on campus in January, Garcia had not yet performed in front of a home crowd in full football gear.

When he finally strolled onto the field for the start of the third series of Saturday's scrimmage, some of the estimated crowd of 6,000 fans applauded loudly.

After everything that has happened the last six months, Garcia appreciated the gesture.

"I thought it was pretty cool," said Garcia, who graduated in December from Jefferson High School in Tampa after a stellar career that saw him throw for 8,081 yards and 83 touchdowns. "It's nice to see the support I've still got from the fans, and I'm still very happy to be here."

Garcia, showcasing the versatile skills he's well known for, legged out a four-yard gain on a bootleg play on his first play.

Later, he lofted a beautiful touchdown pass to Jared Cook in the end zone on a fourth-down play on one of the prettiest hookups of the afternoon.

But he also held onto the ball too long for Steve Spurrier's liking in certain situations.

"They see some guy flying by him and stepping up, and throwing with people flying around you is something that you pretty much have to learn to do," Spurrier said. "You've got to have courage to do it. You've got to throw the ball somewhere. (Sometimes) he was dancing back there when he could have thrown it. That's something he'll learn. When they're blitzing, you've got to get the ball out."

Garcia also learned a valuable lesson about staying focused and concentrating on every play. A mishandled shotgun snap resulted in a wasted play.

"I took my eye off it trying to hit the running back on a little bubble pass," Garcia said. "But I was a little nervous. I had a little bit of butterflies in there."

All in all, Garcia, known for his affinity for ancient war movies, had a typical performance by a true freshman still learning the ropes of major college football.

The scrimmage culminated his first week of practice with the Gamecocks.

Physically, he's done well for the most part by occasionally showing off a powerful right arm that zips the ball to receivers. But he knows he must gain a better understanding of the offense before he can rightfully compete for playing time.

"Mentally, I still think I can get a little better," Garcia said. "I can learn more about the offense, especially the coverages. Coach Spurrier and Coach Reeves are doing a real good job with me and I'm learning everyday."

It's been a similar story for Culliver, the top prospect in North Carolina last season according to

Culliver played sparingly at wide receiver in high school and USC, hoping to take advantage of his incredible speed, was one of a handful of schools that recruited him for that position.

Culliver visited USC for the Middle Tennessee game last year and came away impressed by the enthusiastic fan support. He saw another example of that fanaticism with the large turnout for Saturday's scrimmage.

"There are lot of people who support South Carolina football," Culliver said. "It's a wonderful atmosphere."

He caught one pass Saturday, a 42-yard touchdown reception from Tommy Beecher on a ball tipped by a defensive back.

With so much to grasp, Culliver's goals over the next three weeks leading up to the Sept. 1 season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette at Williams-Brice Stadium are fairly broad in nature.

"I just want to keep my composure, do what the coaches tell me, learn the playbook as best as I can and try to work my way onto the depth chart as best as I can," Culliver said. "I'm picking up everything as we go along."

Since he played mostly on defense and special teams at Garner (N.C.) High School, his ball-catching and route-running skills are still in the infancy stage.

"The thing I need to do better is catch the ball and stay consistent," Culliver said. "My route-running is much better. Coach Spurrier (Jr.) has been working with me from day one to slow down my routes because I run them kind of fast."

Culliver had little experience playing wide receiver until he participated in the Offense-Defense All-Star Game in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. last December. Culliver caught three passes for 97 yards, including a 77-yarder for a touchdown, and was named Offensive MVP of the East squad.

All of a sudden, a lot of schools began recruiting Culliver a wide receiver. But it was too little, too late.

Culliver's status as a five-star recruit and a player with incredible potential hardly makes him immune from criticism by his coaches.

Spurrier, Jr. scolded Culliver Saturday for failing to run one route all-out. As a result, the pass was overthrown by the USC quarterback, a difficult feat considering Culliver has reportedly been timed in the 40-yard dash in 4.28 seconds.

"He just wanted me to run faster," Culliver said. "It was kind of overthrown but Coach Spurrier (Jr.) told me I should never be overthrown as fast as I am."

Culliver, who had 1,500 all purpose yards and returned four kickoffs and two punts for touchdowns as a high school senior, relied on his defensive back instincts to outjump defensive back Mike Newton on the long pass from Beecher.

Newton tipped the ball to Culliver, who caught the ball a few feet from the goal line and strode into the end zone for USC's third and final TD.

"I tried to hit his arm but it just took the wrong bounce for him," Culliver said. "I'm glad the ball just fell into my arms. I didn't hit the ball up like I should have. It kind of fell my way."

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