August 29, 2012

Why So Serious?



Connor Shaw has the mentality to lead South Carolina to a championship, but does he have the talent?

Roommate and close pal T.J. Johnson has proof.

"Me and Connor went fishing one time, and it had just started sprinkling," South Carolina's fifth-year senior said. "I said, 'Last cast,' and I threw it out there."

Johnson, an avid hunter and fisherman, alternated between laughing and glowering during the story. He couldn't decide which to be, as he told of hooking a giant bass and reeling it to the side of the boat, before it snapped his line and went back to the depths.

"It was the biggest fish I ever caught," he swore. "I was so hot, I about dove in after it.

"By now, it's pouring down rain. We paddle up to the shore, we were just in a little pond, and I told Connor, 'Don't pull the boat up, I got to get my stuff ready.' I stand up, and my tackle box is wide-open, and Connor jerks the boat."

One gets the feeling that they dearly would have loved to watch the 6-foot-6, 319-pound center tumble out of the dinghy and into a pool of algae, then stand up, dripping with slime, about to kick a hole in the sky out of volcanic anger. Only to see the Gamecocks' junior quarterback, a man who sometimes looks like he wouldn't smile even if raising the big crystal football, howling at the sight.

"Connor was just laughing his head off, like it was the funniest thing in the world," Johnson said. "Connor's a serious guy, man, but he's also a lot of fun."

It's a side of him that most outside the team or his family rarely sees. Connor Shaw has become (in)famous for his game-face demeanor - eyes as cold as two flint marbles, a hair of a line where his mouth used to be, scalp gleaming like a hard-boiled egg under the thinnest of buzz cuts. He'll celebrate on the field, sure, clapping his hands or accepting a chest/fist bump from his coach or receivers, but off it, in the glare of the cameras or facing an outsider, his expression rarely changes.

"He's got a little quiet orneriness that I like, but Connor's a guy that knows when it's time to get to work and when it's time not to get to work," USC quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus said. "He likes to work toward the most. He's a good kid and can have a laugh or two here or there, but he gets it done when it's out here between the white lines."

It's that focus, that drive, that has the Gamecocks feeling confident about their upcoming season. It flows from above, where even a notorious quarterback-rider like coach Steve Spurrier is completely assured of Shaw's ability to handle and direct his offense. For the first time in his eight years at USC, there is no second-guessing, public baiting or another QB bidding for the spot - Shaw will be under center on Thursday at Vanderbilt, and barring injury or other strange occurrence, will be under center on Nov. 24 at Clemson.

The approach that Shaw has taken toward being the Gamecocks' quarterback is the same that he has taken toward football all of his life. He has dedicated himself to being the best that he can possibly be, adopting the attitude that somebody out there may work as hard as him, but nobody will work harder. That kind of commitment has USC feeling good - after the past four years, where the Gamecocks never knew who was going to show up on Saturday, they can rest assured that this quarterback won't ever be in the headlines for something other than football.

It's that point where Shaw will cement himself. He is not Stephen Garcia, his predecessor who made himself a Columbia legend far more often off the field than on it. The hell-raiser from Tampa received more publicity for his non-football dalliances than winning ballgames, but there was always the nagging factor - he had the talent. If Garcia had the commitment that Shaw does, it would be his name on the ramps of Williams-Brice Stadium as a career leader, and would be one harsh act to follow.

But that's not the case. The Gamecocks want talent at the position, but they need stability. Shaw has proven that he can be counted on for the next two seasons, able to aid his teammates, fully bought into the will and desire that it takes to be a champion. He is already miles above Garcia there.

Will that be enough?

* * *

Why so serious? Because that's the only way he knows.

"Connor was as serious in high school as he is in college," Shaw's father, Lee Shaw, said. "He played with his older brother, came in right behind him. He knew the ropes, how you were supposed to act. When he was 5 or 6, and our ballboy, he knew was supposed to be broken in early."

A coach's son, Connor grew up in an athletic family. Lee played at Western Carolina and Connor's mother, Dawn, played basketball at North Georgia. As Lee took over at Flowery Branch (Ga.) High School, his two sons were on the fast track to being standouts.

"He was harder on us than anybody else," said Jaybo Shaw, Connor's older brother who is a former quarterback at Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern and now assists Lee at Rabun County (Ga.) High. "Nobody thought we were playing because we were coach Shaw's kids. Everybody knew that we worked harder than everybody."

Standing on the sidelines with his brother and dad, first as a youngster and then as a middle-schooler about to join the prep ranks, Connor learned what it would take to be a winner. With his brother flinging passes to him, Connor became an all-state receiver as a sophomore, with major offers starting to roll in.

But Jaybo was off to college, and Lee wanted Connor to switch to quarterback. It was a change that was debated for only a short while. "He wasn't real sure if he wanted to play quarterback," Jaybo said. "If he kept playing receiver, he was getting D- I offers, and he figured he would get a lot more since he was just starting his junior year.

"After he played those first couple of games, it came natural to him. He just had to convince himself and get some playing time at quarterback."

Many coaches' sons have their own tales, of their dads pushing them to the brink of snapping, of throwing them out of practice far more often than their college coaches did. Connor doesn't.

"He was pretty serious from Day 1," Lee said. "Connor likes to win. If there's anything that's going to distract winning, he's not going to be a part of it."

Connor took over at QB and threw for 2,200 yards while rushing for another 941, accumulating 33 touchdowns and guiding the Falcons to the state championship game, where they finished runner-up. As a senior, he passed for 3,100, ran for 800, scored 47 TDs and led Flowery Branch to the state semifinals.

Most all of it without an extra war whoop, high-five or arm pump to whip the crowd into a frenzy.

"He does understand that any time you strap on that helmet, it's time to go to work," Jaybo said. "That's his job - to be the best player he can be. Everything that he does is trying his best to win. When it was time to go to work, it was time to go win a ballgame, time to go play football and win football. That's the business side of it."

* * *

Why so serious? Because the last guy wasn't.

Shaw was a backup, one of a few, when he first reported to USC. Garcia still had two years to go and Spurrier knew that Garcia was the best option, if only he could keep himself in line.

The police records and sightings around town were numerous, some tales so outlandish that they had to be questioned - sort of. As unbelievable as they might have seemed, Garcia's exploits usually had some grains of truth to them.

Shaw kept to himself, there to play, and was as studious about the game as he always had been. Spurrier loved to tell the story of Shaw and Johnson heading outside at night to practice snapping, Shaw knowing that someday he would be doing it in a game.

Those days came quickly. Shaw played in nine games in 2010, mostly running the ball when he was in, and was the backup so fast that the other quarterbacks hardly saw him move past. He was there, another rookie in conditioning, then he was taking snaps with the second team.

"He was highly motivated," Lee said, describing the approach then and now. "He knew that he couldn't be complacent, he couldn't expect it to happen. He had to be prepared as he could be. Every day is competition, and he could lose his job at any moment."

Shaw won the starting job for the 2011 season-opener, but knew that Garcia was going to start the second quarter as per Spurrier's pre-game statements. After that would depend on who was playing the best.

That was Garcia. Shaw had a miserable first quarter, and by the time Garcia first touched the ball, the Gamecocks trailed 17-0. Garcia led USC to a stirring comeback, a spark lit into a bonfire by his explosive touchdown run, but the joy quickly faded.

USC won over the next few weeks, but Garcia was playing badly. Interceptions out-numbered touchdowns 3-to-1, and when the Gamecocks lost a home game to Auburn to snap their winning streak, Spurrier had seen enough.

Shaw had his coming-out party against Kentucky the next week, winning SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors after throwing for 311 yards and four touchdowns. He never looked back - the position was his, as any semblance of a quarterback controversy ended shortly after that game when Garcia used up his last chance and was dismissed from the team.

Yet, knowing that unless there was a major change, he was going to take the Gamecocks home, Shaw kept working, trying to improve. Spurrier kept a tight rein on Shaw as he stepped into the position - after dominating the hapless Wildcats, USC beat Mississippi State and Tennessee mostly by running the ball. Shaw fired the game-winning touchdown to Alshon Jeffery to beat the Bulldogs, and ran for one and threw for another TD as USC edged Tennessee, but he was mostly still known as a running quarterback who only passed in cases of emergency.

The status remained throughout a loss to Arkansas and a narrow win over Florida, Shaw throwing but not being particularly efficient. Then a game against The Citadel triggered something - Spurrier saw a night-and-day switch, the hesitation replaced by confidence, as Shaw truly accepted his team and Spurrier accepted what his quarterback could do.

Through the Gamecocks' final three games, all wins, Shaw only missed on 14 of his 55 pass attempts. He threw for over 200 yards in each game, and accumulated eight touchdowns to one interception. He also ran for three scores and kept his rushing totals afloat - but USC didn't need him to run. His legs became an added bonus, as the Gamecocks saw that Shaw indeed had an arm and wasn't afraid to use it.

"He's very serious when it comes to football," Lee said. "He knows he's at South Carolina for an education and to win football games. If he doesn't take it seriously, he's not going to get better.

"He hasn't reached his top end yet. That's encouraging for South Carolina and for Connor as well."

* * *

Why so serious? He's not, all the time. He just has to be around people he knows well to loosen up.

"He's not going to around you guys," Johnson said, motioning at the tape recorder. "But yeah, Connor's all right. He's a lot more relaxed around us."

Johnson holds cookouts at his house during the season, usually on Thursdays (the light night of the practice week), where he, Shaw and whoever else wants to come sits around and watches football while alternating manning the grill. Johnson's freezer is full of wild game meat and every Thursday is a chance to reach in and grab whatever the hand hits first.

During those times, Johnson says, Shaw does drop the hard veneer. There are times on the field where one can catch a glimpse of a grin or hanging jaw as Shaw celebrates, but those occasions where he's with his buddies are where he can let what little hair he has down.

"We like to go out and watch movies, hang with the quarterbacks, we like to do certain things to have fun," Shaw said, in that quiet not-quite-monotone. "Cookouts - we actually had a cookout last night. Deer meat. It was good."

Make no mistake, the coaches love that he's more of a homebody when he's not on the field. No doubt about it.

"Patience? I don't have patience?" Spurrier asked at SEC Media Days. "Do you know what I've been through for about the last four years? No, Connor hasn't tested it. Connor represents our university and football program in a very high-class manner."

And it's not as if Shaw doesn't have any fun. Football, despite being violent, dangerous and made into near life-or-death sometimes, is a game. The coaches want their players to be serious about it most of the time - but being in a stadium packed with 80,000 people, cheers raining down on them just because they're wearing a jersey, how could an 18-22-year-old not have fun?

"He loves football," Mangus said. "If you love football the way he loves it, you've got to have fun. Just because you may not be a laugher or a giggler or all that kind of stuff, I assure you, he has a good time playing football. He loves it."

Jaybo knows better than most that his brother has a fun side. "We get around, go on vacation, we have our times," he said. "We talk every day. We cut up, and he's the one making me laugh. It's been that way since he was little. When we were little, he loved to see me laugh. He'd crack a joke, and it's the same way today."

But when it's time to train, time to practice, time to play the game, it's almost as if Shaw is a split personality. The smile disappears so quickly that it's often just a fuzzy recollection of when it was there.

"He always had that about him," Jaybo said. "He can flip a switch, when he knew how to have fun and how to relax, and when he knew it was time to go to work."

* * *

Why so serious? Because he knew that even with several seniors on the team, the quarterback is always going to be viewed as the leader.

Shaw spent so much time in the weight room over the summer - those "non-mandatory" conditioning drills that players had better show up to - that the coaches had to tell him to quit lifting. They didn't want him to get too big.

"He does what you would like quarterbacks to do on the field, off the field and so forth," Spurrier said. "I think the players have a lot of confidence in him. He's a good player. He's a very good quarterback who we hope is going to turn into a really great one, an outstanding one."

The Gamecocks have embraced a new attitude and commitment level, Spurrier saying that that was the biggest reason that he seems to have a bit of his old swagger back. USC has won 20 games in two seasons, with a bowl win and an SEC East championship over that span, and Shaw has been a big part of the success.

With other stars such as Marcus Lattimore, Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor back, USC is thinking it can make a run at the SEC and national championships. Shaw is at the forefront of that, the man who has to make the decisions and then show that they were the right ones.

His confidence is as high as it ever has been. "When Stephen Garcia left the team, maybe it cleared the air a little bit for Connor," Spurrier said at SEC Media Days. "Sometimes when the quarterback knows he's the guy, he plays a little bit better. Maybe that helped Connor. He played very well in the final four games."

His knowledge is at a peak. "It was a learning process, with the depth of the playbook," Lee said. "Yeah, he would get frustrated. He would also get motivated."

His ability to balance fun and business is just fine. "Oh, I got him back," Johnson said, referring to the impromptu dip he took. "I just can't say how."

Shaw has every tool to be an elite quarterback.

All that's left is for him to prove it.

"Offseason, I've been working on being more of a vocal leader," Shaw said. "I think once I get off the field, I have a good time with my players. It's not all business, but once we get on the field, it is."

Shaw wasn't smiling when he said it. It wasn't meant as a joke.

Seriously.



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