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Why the last Gamecock QBs drafted into NFL have high hopes for Spencer Rattler as a pro

It’s hardly enough people to be called a group. Better yet, they are the answer to one of the most dumbfounding trivia questions?

Who are the only South Carolina quarterbacks to be selected in the modern era (post AFL-NFL merger) NFL Draft?

Come on down, Jeff Grantz (1976) and Todd Ellis (1990) and … anyone?

Steve Tanneyhill? Nope. Anthony Wright? No, Sir, but he managed to start 19 NFL games. How about Connor Shaw? Not quite, but he did start one game in the league? Did Dylan Thompson squeak in there? No, but he had a cup of coffee on the 49ers active roster.

For too long, Ellis has known that he’s been the last Gamecock quarterback to actually get drafted.

“Not because I’ve been following it but because I’ve been surprised a few of those along the way did not get drafted,” he told The State this week. “I thought several of our guys should have been drafted and were not. That made me aware that I was the last one.”

For 34 years, Ellis and Grantz have been coupled together in this weird pairing, a sort of bizarre kinship as the answer to this trivia question.

Asked about this, Grantz started chuckling.

“Yeah, I guess. That’s nice.” he told The State this week. “I think it’s very odd. Connor Shaw wasn’t drafted. Anthony Wright wasn’t drafted. I think it has a little bit to do with, of course, the success and status of the program at that time.”

But, at long last, Grantz and Ellis are expecting company.

On Friday, it is expected that South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler will be selected in the NFL Draft. He will likely not only be the highest-drafted quarterback from USC, but the first since he’s been born. At long last, the drought should end. We can tweak the trivia answer and, heck, even call them a group.

“He played within himself the best he could,” Grnatz said of Rattler. “And I think that’s gonna make him even better as an NFL guy because of the experience he went through moving around in the pocket, reading defenses. Because he had to (at South Carolina).

“I think Spencer Rattler had one of the best years a quarterback has ever played in college football, much less at South Carolina,” said Ellis, who has called USC football games on the radio since 2003. “Considering the people around him. Considering the weapons. And (considering) the competition.”

History of the quarterbacks drafted from South Carolina

Grantz played both football and baseball at South Carolina, helping lead the Gamecocks baseball team advance to the College World Series Final in 1975. He also holds two of the most impressive quarterbacking stats in South Carolina history: Rushing for 260 yards in a 1973 game against Ohio — a number that only one Gamecock (let alone, quarterback) has broken since — and throwing for five touchdowns in a 1975 rout of Clemson.

He was drafted by the Miami Dolphins during the 1976 baseball season and made it down there for a rookie mini-camp a few months later. Very quickly, it was clear coach Don Shula didn’t care about Grantz the quarterback. The started him at receiver and told him maybe he could move to defensive back.

Three days later, South Carolina coach Jim Carlen called the Dolphins and told them Grantz had no desire to play in the NFL. He tried to make a career out of baseball, but didn’t get drafted. So he coached with Carlen for a few years, then sold sporting goods for a little bit and spent the next 33 years selling beer.

“And it worked out great,” Grantz said.

Ellis’ ending is similar. Football didn’t work out and his life turned out fantastic — he still resides in Columbia working as a lawyer and the USC football play-by-play announcer on radio.

But when he was selected in the 9th round of the 1990 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos, he was pumped. During the offseason, Broncos coach Dan Reeves — a South Carolina alum — made the trip out to Williams-Brice Stadium to watch Ellis throw along with a few other NFL teams.

“It was one of the first times since my injury that I had really felt good in every aspect,” Ellis told The State this week. “Dan took me through the passing drills, drops and what throws he wanted to see. I felt great that day.”

Perhaps the most-prized quarterback recruit in South Carolina history out of Page High in Greensboro, Ellis was the Gamecocks gunslinger.

He still holds the program’s career passing yards record by a mile (9,953 yards) and helped South Carolina to a pair of 8-4 seasons in 1987-1988, but was plagued by turnovers. He threw 49 touchdowns to … 66 interceptions. Then came the season-ending knee injury in 1989 that gave NFL teams pause during the draft process.

“I knew by that time that with the injury and the word from my agent, I had slipped a great deal,” Ellis said. “There was a great deal of question marks whether I could come back (fully).”

Perhaps everything would have healed and all would have been great had he had a chance. But Denver already had one Hall of Fame quarterback in John Elway and a solid longtime backup in Gary Kubiak. Ellis earned a $13,500 signing bonus, took snaps in one preseason game and then put on waivers, forced to load up his car drive 28 hours back to South Carolina.

He does not anticipate the same fate for Rattler.

What makes Rattler ready for the NFL?

Rattler was not the best South Carolina quarterback because he played the longest. Heck, he transferred in from Oklahoma and only spent two seasons as a Gamecock. He did not have the most success (13 wins) but did beat No. 5 Tennessee and No. 7 Clemson in 2022. He did not have the greatest stats, either, though he was pretty close, throwing for over 6,000 yards in two years.

But Rattler proved himself as just being a “gamer,” as Grantz called him.

Almost no quarterback in college football was on their backside more than Rattler in 2023. His offensive line was suffering a new injury every-other day. His running backs were nonexistent. And his top receiver, Juice Wells, hardly touched the field. There were moments last season when fans were genuinely concerned for his safety.

And, yet, the former No. 1 ranked QB in America just kept getting up. He kept praising his teammates. Kept telling the media some of the sacks were his fault. Kept giving his offensive line props for the plays they did make. Kudos to his receivers for the catches that bailed him out. And he, somehow, stayed healthy and started every game.

He kept the Gamecocks in games where they were getting bullied. And maybe that meant layering a beautiful pass to Xavier Legette on third down. And sometimes it was just getting them to the next drive — throwing the ball away, not fumbling, keeping guys engaged.

“Late in your career,” Ellis said. “you realize what you really do well, what your weaknesses are and then you start to assert yourself into the game plan to make sure the things that (showcase) your strengths are called. Maybe that’s maturity.”

When Rattler first arrived in Columbia, Grantz would go to practices and just marvel at the arm talent. Few people on Earth can make throwing a football look like art and, yet, there is something mesmerizing about how Rattler flicks the pigskin from every conceivable angle.

Grantz didn’t have that in his arsenal, but in time he began to see some similarities.

“I think leadership and field presence,” Grantz said of a comparison. “I just think he was a mature, smart quarterback. He could see the field, feel pressure and that’s what I did the whole game.”

There is almost no precedent for a drafted South Carolina quarterback. Not much more for Gamecock quarterbacks succeeding in the league. But Rattler seems different, like he’s expected to be at this point all his life and heading to the NFL is just next up on the to-do list.

Where he gets drafted will determine much of his success. But somehow, someway, Grantz and Ellis believe, he’ll find a way to make an impact.

“Is he a longtime player as a starter or backup?” Ellis asked. “I just say yes. I’d be shocked if it didn’t work out.”