Time for Garcia to take that next big step

A quick trivia question: Who led the SEC last season (in conference games only) in total offense?

No, it wasn’t Tim Tebow, and it wasn’t Ryan Mallett, either.

Would you believe South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia?

He averaged 270.6 yards per game, which ranked him just ahead of Mallett. He also wasn’t too far behind Mallett in passing yards. Mallett finished with 2,189 yards and Garcia with 2,105, both in eight conference games.

I bring this up as the Gamecocks open spring practice on Thursday for the sole purpose of pointing out that Garcia did come quite a ways during his sophomore season. He wasn’t perfect and still gave up on plays a bit too early as well as finishing eighth in conference games in pass efficiency.

But in a season in which Steve Spurrier didn’t have any other options at quarterback, Garcia took the kind of step the Gamecocks needed him to take.

Now, he has to take an even bigger one if South Carolina is going to contend for the Eastern Division title in 2010. Garcia has to become even more of a leader, not to mention more consistent.

He hasn’t had any off-the-field missteps since his run of problems soon after he arrived on campus and showed some real toughness on the field last season. He took a serious beating (the Gamecocks gave up 37 sacks), but didn’t miss a game and played through some pretty intense pain after bruising his ribs against Ole Miss in the fourth week of the season.

You still got the feeling last season that Spurrier didn’t trust Garcia implicitly and held off on calling some things. That should change in 2010.

Hard as it is to believe, Garcia is now the grizzled veteran of the league at quarterback. He’s the SEC’s active leader in career total yards (4,078) and passing yards (3,694).

There are several factors that will go into the Gamecocks genuinely making a run in the East next season, but none are any more important than Garcia taking that next step as a quarterback and as a leader.