Spring football is here, and with it comes a variety of story lines, many of which we'll look at over the coming weeks. None is more interesting than that of Dylan Thompson, though. With Connor Shaw out for the spring after undergoing surgery on his foot, Thompson will get plenty of reps, and Steve Spurrier will presumably be considering whether or not Thompson is ready to start.
Throughout the season, I was in the camp that believed that while Thompson deserved our applause for filling in when needed, Connor Shaw was the best option when healthy enough to play. There were a variety of reasons. First of all, we didn't really get to see Thompson play well against a decent team until the Clemson game, and even that came against a very questionable defense. Against Vandy and Florida, Thompson struggled mightily. More generally, I've long felt that the coaches know their QBs better than I do, and if they thought Thompson deserved to play over a healthy Shaw, they would give Thompson snaps while Shaw was healthy. We didn't see that happen until the Outback Bowl. Even then, Shaw wasn't 100%, and although Thompson played early, it was clear that the coaches had every intention of giving Shaw the lion's share of the most important snaps until Shaw took a few rough hits.
Thompson did play, though, and for the first time of the year, he was successful against a decent defense. Very successful, actually--he went 7/10 for 117 yards for a 234.3 passer rating, including the game-winner, a big-time throw to Bruce Ellington that Thompson had to make under pressure. It was a performance that makes you think Thompson is every bit capable of being a big-time SEC quarterback, and the coaches' comments about Thompson suggest they agree.
Granted, the injured Shaw played well in this game, too, throwing for over 200 yards and making some big plays with his feet. When you factor in all of Shaw's accomplishments last year with the fact that he really was never healthy, you have to wonder how good Shaw could be if he can manage to stay healthier this time around. Thompson, thus, has a lot of work to do to prove that he's the best option.
Thompson has a nice opportunity this spring, though. It's not likely that he'll completely supplant Shaw based on anything that happens over the next few weeks, but he does have the chance to gain confidence from the coaches and thus place himself in a position to earn more playing time once both of them are on the practice field together in the fall.
The main thing I would watch for from Thompson is whether he protects the ball well. One of Thompson's biggest strengths is that he gets the ball out quickly. That's important; Steve Spurrier's offense relies on the QB timing routes well, and the QB thus has to be willing to get rid of the ball quickly as he sees a route coming open. The problem is that there's a thin line between a QB who trusts his routes and one who puts the ball in danger frequently. Thompson has to prove he's the latter. Don't forget; while Thompson didn't throw too many interceptions last year, he could have very well thrown many more if the UAB and Clemson defensive backfields could have come down with some of his misjudged throws.
This is particularly important because, while Spurrier certainly wants Shaw to get the ball out more quickly, Shaw's incredible TD-INT ratio has been a big boost for Carolina. While Shaw's conservative play has probably left some points on the field here and there, it's also helped Shaw keep turnovers down, which has left many games in the hands of our defense, which has more often than not come through for us. If Thompson can prove that he can improve the passing game without adding to the turnover-per ratio, that's one thing; if not, I suspect the coaches will continue putting the game in the hands of Shaw.