South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier was having a conversation this week with his starting quarterback, Stephen Garcia, when the subject of last year's game against Florida came up.
"We asked him if he knew what was happening down in the Swamp last year," Spurrier recalled. "And he said, 'I had no idea what was going on.' He was a lost Gamecock."
Fast-forward one year.
The evolution of Garcia, the former Jefferson High standout, is still in progress. But it's clear the Garcia the Gators face today is a far cry from the player he was last year at this time.
"He has improved," Florida junior safety Major Wright said. "We're watching film, and he's not locked in (on one receiver) all the time. And … they've got some great receivers."
After an up-and-down 2008 in which he saw action in eight games with three starts, the redshirt sophomore has started all 10 games this season, going the distance in eight.
Although he is just 7-6 as a starter, he has passed for 3,253 yards, 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 18 games. In last season's 56-6 loss to Florida, he was 13-of-24 for 92 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
But the difference between last season and now is nearly night and day, Spurrier said.
"He has a pretty good idea of what's going on now," Spurrier said. "He's done a very good job taking care of the ball this year. Our turnovers are way down from where they were this time last year."
The Gamecocks enter having lost three of their past four but are trying to remain undefeated at home and seek offensive consistency.
Garcia is off-limits to the media with the exception of after games, but he told reporters last week it's time for the team to snap out of its slump.
"We just need to execute," Garcia said. "We still haven't played a game where everyone is satisfied yet. Once we finally get that game, I think everybody will finally understand what it's like and see how much fun it is and go from there."
In Garcia's defense, the Gamecocks returned just four starters this season, and he's working with young receivers. But Florida spent the week watching film of Garcia, and players and coaches alike came away impressed.
"The thing about him is he has a system, and Garcia understands the system," Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said. "He's been in it for two years now. And he's making throws and making the adjustments he needs to make."
Garcia has 2,421 passing yards (second in the SEC) this season, sixth most in school history. That has the Gators expecting the Gamecocks to air it out quite often this afternoon.
"You'll see a lot of different looks," defensive tackle Omar Hunter said. "It's going to be a big challenge. We definitely need to get pressure on Garcia. If he sits back, he can pick your defense apart. He definitely is a lot better."
Spurrier hopes the next step in Garcia's evolution is a greater commitment to learning the nuances of the game.
"Stephen Garcia is much improved from last year, but there's still a lot of room that he can play better," Spurrier said. "He needs to continue making a commitment to learn the game, learn how to play, learn how to audible here and there and get out of a bad play and try to get into a good play. Just learn how to play. Take more time to study the game. So just his commitment level.
"He's doing much better, and he's got to continue striving to learn everything about playing quarterback."
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