His ability has never been hard to see. Taneyhill became Altoona's starting quarterback his junior year, and after a 1-3 start he led the team to six straight wins—five of them with last-minute scoring drives—and a 7-3 record. The next year Altoona slipped to 6-4, but Taneyhill passed for a school-record 2,172 yards and became one of the nation's most sought-after schoolboy quarterbacks, pursued by Miami, Florida State, UCLA and Alabama, among others.
But his hair affected even his recruitment, he says. Penn State, just 45 minutes from Altoona, did not show much interest in him. Taneyhill thinks the reasons were his looks and general comportment, which did not seem compatible with coach Joe Paterno's famously understated teams.
Taneyhill chose South Carolina for one reason: a promise that he could compete for playing time as a freshman. Actually he expected more than that. Shortly after he signed his letter of intent, he went to Columbia to attend South Carolina's spring game. He took one look at the veteran quarterbacks on the field and told a reporter from The State, South Carolina's biggest newspaper, "I'm going to start here next year." The next morning the paper carried a story about the cocky incoming quarterback. That was Columbia's introduction to Taneyhill.
When he got to campus to begin summer school, Taneyhill was met with coolness and hostile stares from upperclassmen, especially Wright Mitchell, the returning fifth-year senior quarterback. Mitchell said of Taneyhill, "We don't exactly play Nintendo together."
Gradually, however, the Gamecocks warmed to Taneyhill, especially when he took the practice field. He was quickly made the backup to Mitchell. Redshirt freshman quarterback Blake Williamson, with whom Taneyhill roomed, discovered that the new guy wasn't a trash talker behind closed doors; rather, he was hardworking and uncomplicated. Taneyhill's only problem was that he had too much energy to ride the bench. "When he puts on that helmet," Woods says, "he's on stage."
He didn't have much of a role, however, during the first five games of the season. Most of the time Taneyhill watched Mitchell do an ineffective job. And in his first significant appearance, Taneyhill was humiliated. Woods put him into a slaughter at the hands of Arkansas, which was leading the Gamecocks 31-0. Taneyhill went zero for four, with two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown. He didn't play for the next two games. "I can't be myself as a backup," Taneyhill told Woods. Each week when he called home he was more miserable, and he considered transferring at the end of the season.
Meanwhile, the other players were growing impatient with Woods. Their offense was averaging only 10 points a game. During a loss to Alabama, Woods again turned to Taneyhill. This time he completed 10 of 17 passes for 135 yards. The Gamecocks had found their new starting quarterback.
But the quarterback issue was just one problem on a team shot through with dissension. Nine days after the Alabama game some frustrated upperclassmen called a players-only meeting, and the team voted to ask for Woods's resignation. Woods acted swiftly. The next day he told the Gamecocks that he was the head coach and that anybody who didn't like it could turn in his scholarship. With that, Woods announced the quarterback change and began preparing for a game with 15th-ranked Mississippi State that looked to be another potential slaughter.
It was anything but. Taneyhill electrified all of South Carolina with his performance. On the second play from scrimmage he completed a 35-yard pass, and the Gamecock crowd remained on its feet for the rest of the game, a 21-6 victory. Taneyhill completed seven of 14 passes for 183 yards, including touchdown throws of 10 and 43 yards. He leaped up and down in the huddle and whirled a white towel on the sideline. After the game he ran around shaking hands with members of the crowd. "People around here really needed to win," Woods says now. "Steve somehow rallied the troops and made it fun again."
"I was just the switch," Taneyhill says. But he was the switch to a nuclear explosion. The next week Taneyhill predicted publicly that the Gamecocks would win all of their remaining games. They started with a 21-17 victory over Vanderbilt in which Taneyhill brought the Gamecocks back from a 14-point deficit. The game-breaker was a 55-yard scoring pass. Next South Carolina upset Tennessee 24-23 on two more scoring passes from Taneyhill. After a 14-13 win over Louisiana Tech and a 14-9 loss to heavily favored Florida, the Gamecocks ended the season with a 24-13 upset of Clemson in which Taneyhill was 19 of 29 for 296 yards, including scoring passes of 21 and 30 yards. Over the season he completed 86 of 162 passes for 1,272 yards and seven touchdowns. The Gamecocks averaged 18.8 points a game under his hand.