COLUMBIA -- Phil Petty could be forgiven if he grimaces when he hears South Carolina coach Lou Holtz rave about the Gamecocks' freshman quarterbacks.
Quick feet. Strong arms. Durable. Mobile in the pocket. Qualities that Petty, for all his strengths, doesn't possess in large quantities.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound junior is the Gamecocks' starting quarterback entering preseason drills, but the presence of talented newcomers Rod Wilson and Dondrial Pinkins means Petty's hold on the top job might be more tenuous than it appears.
"To be honest with you, I've never been one to pay attention to that," Petty said Thursday at the Gamecocks' annual media day. "I'm going on my fourth year here, and they've brought in guys every year. Some are still here; some are not."
Petty, who played in 16 games in his first two seasons at South Carolina after having been redshirted in 1997, said he doesn't worry about his competition as much as his own performance. But Holtz's mandate to bring Wilson and Pinkins to Columbia spoke volumes about the direction of the offense.
Both were recruited by most big-name schools, both are versatile, and both appear the perfect fit to run the wide-open attack Holtz installed during the spring.
Still, Wilson and Pinkins are clearly the backups until Petty gets hurt, or they prove otherwise. And Holtz stresses that he's sold on his veteran.
"Petty is very secure in the quarterback position," said Holtz, whose team will hold its first full practice today. "I thought he had a good spring; he didn't have a particularly good spring game. I think in the last six months, he's really developed as a leader. I think he's developed as a person. I expect him to have a very good year -- I really and truly do."
Petty hasn't been given much of an opportunity to excel at South Carolina. He was pressed into duty midway during his freshman season as rumors of team dissension circulated, and the Gamecocks were spiraling into a 1-10 abyss in 1998.
Last season, he labored behind a patchwork offensive line and suffered a knee injury in the Gamecocks' fourth game at Mississippi State. After sitting out the next five outings, he returned to post encouraging numbers in the last two games -- 15-of-31 passing for 164 yards in a 20-3 loss to Florida, then a 15-of-32, 167-yard effort in a 31-21 home defeat to Clemson.
Holtz said Petty never really had a chance during the 0-11 debacle of 1999.
"Last year was very discombobulating for him with the injuries and everything else," said Holtz, who was forced to play 16 offensive linemen because of injuries, suspensions and defections.
This year, things appear more stable. The offensive line is healthy and somewhat deep, Petty likes the new offensive look, and the addition of junior-college receivers James Adkisson and Corey Alexander offers potential to an offense that scored fewer than eight points per game last season.
"We've got guys that can run," Petty said. "We've got speed at the skill positions."
Said Holtz: "I think this is fair now. I think that we're putting a pretty good supporting system around (Petty). All we ask him to do is to protect the ball and play and utilize his talent. He has the talent."
Still, Petty finds himself in an awkward situation. He's only a junior, which means Holtz might be more willing to insert one of the young guys sooner than later with the intention of grooming them for the future.
And even if Petty isn't displaced this season, it's pretty clear Wilson or Pinkins will be given an ample shot at supplanting him next season.
Petty said he welcomes the challenge.
"My biggest motivation and competition is running myself," Petty said. "I try to motivate myself and compete to be better than Phil Petty was yesterday."