March 26, 2008

Before The Storm: Garcia Sought New Start

Six hours before he received a citation from campus police for underage drinking last Saturday night, South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia told a small group of reporters that he was ready to turn the page and start anew.

It seems, however, that old habits were difficult to break.

Now, after paying a fine of $257.50 in municipal court less than 48 hours after being ticketed, Garcia has been suspended from all football team activities until August 15.

USC Athletic Director Eric Hyman met with Garcia Tuesday afternoon and shortly thereafter announced the suspension in a terse two-sentence statement.

"Stephen Garcia broke University rules," Hyman said in the statement. "Therefore he is suspended from all team activities through August 15."

As a result of the suspension, Garcia will be prohibited from participating in the final 12 workouts of spring practice, the entire summer conditioning program and the first two weeks of fall camp heading into the 2008 season.

He also won't be allowed to participate in team meetings.

In short, he's been tossed into solitary confinement and his career as a Gamecock football player is in jeopardy.

Garcia won't be eligible to rejoin the team until less than two weeks remained before the Aug. 28 season opener against N.C. State.

Garcia won't be allowed to attend summer school, and must submit to drug tests and comprehensive alcohol counseling. He has to also move to off-campus housing for the balance of the spring semester.

Had he acted in accordance with what he told reporters around 12 noon last Saturday, he wouldn't find himself in this predicament.

But shortly thereafter, Garcia, his brother Gary, 25, walk-on quarterback Zac Brindise and possibly others began consuming alcohol and playing loud music.

Soon, the police arrived and Garcia's latest troubles began.

Garcia was rated by Rivals.com as one of the top dual-threat quarterback prospects in the country and participated in the prestigious Elite 11 camp.

And for good reason. He threw for over 8,000 yards and 83 touchdowns in his career at Jefferson High School in Tampa, Fla., while also running for 1,345 yards and 17 scores, graduating as the county's all-time leader in passing yards and completions.

When he signed with USC, Gamecock fans had visions of conference championships in their heads.

Did the pressure of fulfilling the expectations of others finally affect him? Possibly.

"I don't think I'm used to it yet," Garcia said. "There was a huge expectation, so I'm going to try to live up to it. I hear it all the time. Riding my scooter, people wave and 'Hey, Garcia, go win the starting job' and stuff like that. I try not to pay attention to it.

"I try not to put a whole lot of pressure on myself. I'm just trying to do what I came here to do - play football. My motivation is to get on the field and play."

A year ago, Garcia was suspended for the entire spring practice by Spurrier after he was arrested twice in less than two weeks. He was first charged with drunkenness and failure to stop for a police officer arising from an incident in Five Points.

Less than two weeks later, he was charged with malicious injury to personal property after he keyed a professor's vehicle.

"It seems like that it happened so long time ago," Garcia said. "I'm just trying to let it go and leave it behind me. The fans have been behind me. I haven't heard anything about it. I'm appreciative of that."

The suspension dashed Garcia's hopes of playing last season, but he saw a silver lining in sitting out.

"Missing spring last year definitely hurt my chances," Garcia said. "But I'm kind of glad it happened because I feel I grew up a whole lot. I learned a whole lot about the playbook and the school and the city. I'm not real happy it happened, but in a sense it helped me out a lot.

"It's a lot better feeling to finally be able to play."

Garcia successfully completed a pre-trial intervention program and had the crimes of drunkenness and malicious injury to property expunged from his record. The charge of failure to stop was dismissed.

This year, Garcia entered spring practice knowing he would have to miss one workout due to missing too many classes last semester. The absences came in an English class he later dropped.

"Hopefully, (Spurrier) will forget or something," Garcia laughed. "But I'll have to just live with the consequences. It was definitely my fault."

But Garcia said he did have one regret when spring practice opened - he wished he had worked harder in the off-season.

"I probably didn't watch as much film as I should have," Garcia said. "Whenever we had meetings, we watched film, but I really didn't do whole lot on my own. But I did study the playbook, so I do feel I learned a lot."

Garcia insisted his knowledge of the offense was a "1,000 percent better" than last season, although he acknowledged he was "still a rookie."

Garcia redshirted last season and will have four seasons to play if he returns to the USC campus in mid-August.

Garcia's suspension leaves redshirt sophomore Chris Smelley and redshirt junior Tommy Beecher as the only two viable candidates battling for the starting QB job.

Smelley completed 56.8 percent of his passes (92 of 162) for 1,176 yards and nine touchdowns last season, while Beecher connected on 14 of 23 passes for 175 yards. Smelley started six games before he was replaced for good by the departed Blake Mitchell in the second half of the Tennessee game.

Spurrier expressed confidence Monday night that either Smelley or Beecher would be prepared to play when his fourth season as Gamecock head coach opens in late August with the nationally televised Thursday night matchup with N.C. State at Williams-Brice Stadium.

"We have Tommy Beecher and Chris Smelley and we know they're always going to be here," Spurrier said Monday night. "They do everything we ask and they're wonderful kids. They can throw the ball. They can play. We'll worry about Stephen if he comes back out here."




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