There's no beating around the bush here: South Carolina's quarterback Connor Shaw is the heart and soul of this team. The Gamecocks need him healthy and on the field.
Shaw plays at 110 percent at all times. He's a full-speed-ahead quarterback who combines an accurate passing approach with a zone-read running style. Shaw is a solid dual-threat quarterback and flat out wins football games.
But, it's Shaw's "Gordy Go-Hard" style of play that leads to errant plays that put him at risk of injury. Whether it is being prone to a big hit during a wild scramble or pushing for extra yardage with a couple of nimble moves, Shaw puts his body on the line.
South Carolina squeaked out a win against Florida to finish up its SEC schedule, and the Gamecocks' fate lies in the hands of Missouri, even though the team still has games against Coastal Carolina and Clemson.
South Carolina needs Shaw to stay healthy, especially in the Clemson game. BCS hopes are still alive, and a berth in the SEC title game is there if South Carolina can steal the SEC East division. There are a lot of factors in making it to that point, and Shaw's health is one of the biggest.
Here are three keys to keeping Connor Shaw injury free for the rest of the season.
1) Work the ground game with the running backs.
In case you haven't noticed, South Carolina has one of the best running backs in the SEC and the nation.
Sophomore Mike Davis is a monster, even though he isn't being utilized as a total workhorse of a back.
One way of keeping Shaw healthy is by limiting his carries by using guys like Davis and his comrade in the backfield, Shon Carson, who is an excellent change-of-pace back who can use his speed to break big runs.
Between Davis' balance and Carson's bursts through the gaps, South Carolina has the rushing weapons to avoid sending Shaw to the wolves. Run the ball with the running backs who are built for running and escaping injuries. Don't leave Shaw susceptible to big hits out of the zone-read game.
Hand the ball off and decoy with Shaw.
I know Shaw is a dual-threat quarterback who likes to run, but South Carolina is extremely effective when handing off the pigskin to its star running back.
2) Pass-protect. Pass-protect. Pass-protect.
Coaches can't stress it enough. If your quarterback isn't getting hit, then your team is doing well, and he is staying healthy.
South Carolina has a strong squad of offensive linemen. Shaw has been sacked 17 times in 2013, which is a decent number. The Gamecocks' tackles provide solid protection for Shaw.
Although Shaw is a mobile quarterback and can make plays outside of the pocket, the offensive line needs to pass-protect and keep Shaw inside the pocket where he can avoid the big hits. Plus, Shaw is a fairly accurate passer, and those numbers should stay steady if he sticks to the pocket.
Offensive linemen don't want their quarterback to get hit. So don't let it happen, Gamecocks, and Shaw will have a greater chance of staying healthy.
3) It's on Shaw.
No matter what the team does, it all comes down to Shaw. Only Shaw can keep Shaw healthy.
Shaw's playing style puts him at risk for injury. He can either change the style that has worked so well for him en route to becoming a proven winner for South Carolina or continue playing "Connor Shaw" football. The answer is to play like he always has; he should just proceed with caution.
If he sees a big hit coming, Shaw needs to hit the deck. If he's scrambling down the sideline, he should get out of bounds instead of stretching the play for a couple of extra yards only to get lit up by a linebacker or defensive back.
Shaw needs to use his intelligence and recognize when he is pushing a little too hard.
Then again, Shaw's determination and motor to always push his body's limitations is what makes him such a great player. He doesn't want to lose and will do whatever it takes.
The only wish for South Carolina is that Shaw will do whatever it takes but will also stay healthy.