Brandon McIlwain will star at South Carolina, but will it be in football?

Will Muschamp has been coy so far discussing the quarterback position this year for South Carolina.

On the eve of his first game as coach of the Gamecocks, the only thing he’s revealed is that two will enter the huddle Thursday at Vanderbilt. He’s yet to say any actual names, though.

Presumably, those two are senior Perry Orth and freshman Brandon McIlwain — Jake Bentley, another freshman, technically hasn’t been eliminated from the competition but is taking most of his snaps with the third team during fall camp. Orth is the low-floor option, while McIlwain has the high ceiling.

It’s possible that this is nothing more than gamesmanship in an effort to befuddle the Commodores.

Jul 14, 2016; Hoover, AL, USA; South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp speaks to media during SEC media day at Hyatt Regency Birmingham-The Wynfrey Hotel. Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

“Two guys will play,” Muschamp said Monday, according to The State. “If I felt like somebody had been head and shoulders above the other guys, then we would have probably named a starter. I don’t know that we’ve seen that, and I think all three guys offer a little bit of a different skill-set for us at the quarterback position.”

Orth was the third of three QBs to start for the ‘Cocks in what was a depressing 2015. Connor Mitch got injured and eventually transferred. Lorenzo Nunez is now lining up as a receiver.

Whomever gets the call under center, he won’t be surrounded by a lot of returning production at any of the skill positions. USC doesn’t have a 300-yard tailback — Nunez did run for 375 — or a 13-catch wideout on the roster.

With such meager expectations for Muschamp in Year 1, perhaps he should start fresh with McIlwain.

the case for mcilwain

Originally a four-star kid for the class of 2016 from Newtown (Pa.) Council Rock North High School, just north of Philadelphia, McIlwain chose South Carolina despite offers from SEC programs like Auburn, Florida and Tennessee.

A 6-foot, 200-pounder, McIlwain was the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback, No. 6 player in the state of Pennsylvania and No. 171 prospect nationally, according to 247Sports. Alongside five-star studs Shea Patterson (Ole Miss) and Jacob Eason (Georgia), he was part of the celebrated Elite 11 competition.

McIlwain threw for 18 touchdowns and ran for 31 more as a senior last season for the Indians.

“Council Rock North ran a hurry-up, no-huddle, spread offense for all four seasons Brandon was the starter,” Philip Mann told Saturday Down South. He was McIlwain’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in high school. “The philosophy of the offense was to spread the defense out and give Brandon a lot of run/pass options.

“Brandon’s ability to both throw and run, along with the fact that we ran a very fast-paced, up-tempo offense, allowed us to keep the defense off balance.”

The 2015 Gatorade Player of the Year in Pennsylvania, McIlwain proved to be more than just a scary athlete in shotgun formation. Mann trusted him to tweak plays on the fly after diagnosing defenses.

“Due to the fact that it was Brandon’s fourth year running the offense, he had the freedom to make a lot of adjustments at the line of scrimmage,” he said. “His decision-making ability along with his extreme athleticism led to a great deal of success.”

Orth, similarly built to McIlwain at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, wasn’t a blue-chip passer at the prep level by any stretch of the imagination. He came to the Gamecocks a walk-on, as the only other FBS squad to pay him any attention — a scholarship offer was never made, though — was South Florida.

“Physically, Brandon possesses a very special skill set that includes a combination of speed, agility, elite arm talent, toughness and just overall athleticism that I have never seen before at the high school level in my coaching career,” said Mann, who has coached for 12 years.

Still, Orth does have experience. McIlwain will need to master a more complicated college playbook.

“Mentally, he is a true student of the game and he learns very quickly,” Mann said. “His mental toughness is on a different level, and the lights are never too bright for him. The bigger the stage, the better he plays.”

Quarterbacks who can fill up a stat sheet in high school aren’t that hard to find, especially with the evolution of spread schemes. But McIlwain has never seen anything like the defenses in the SEC.

“The part of his game that I think will need a little time to develop is just his adjustment to the speed and complexity of the defensive game at the Division-I college level,” Mann said. “Brandon has spent the past four years always being the fastest, most athletic kid on the field, and he could always rip a ball into any window and run past any defender in the open field.”

The Gamecocks are coming off a 3-9 season. Muschamp inherited a bit of a mess from the now-retired Steve Spurrier. While there is talent on hand — the Palmetto State always produces a fair share of SEC signees — an argument can be made for going with McIlwain and building toward 2017 and beyond.

“(It) may take some time and patience for his coaches to help him adjust and learn,” Mann said, specifically citing the size and speed of defenders in the best conference in America.

The downside, of course, is subjecting McIlwain to too much too soon and doing more harm than good.

the case for baseball

Complicating matters is the fact that McIlwain was a two-sport stud in high school. As a matter of fact, many think he is a better baseball player and should pursue that route.

According to Max Preps, McIlwain hit .433 with 5 home runs and 25 RBIs in 21 games as a junior at Council Rock North — his speed allowed him to steal 13 bases, too. As an early enrollee this past spring, he saw limited action in eight contests for USC and produced 1 hit and 1 RBI in 10 at-bats.

The ‘Cocks play terrific baseball, by the way, having won back-to-back national titles in 2010 and 2011.

“We were pretty excited about Brandon as a prospect in the summer of 2015,” said John Manuel, the editor-in-chief of Baseball America. “He was first-team All-Area Code Games, which is one of if not the top tournament for high school players on the summer circuit. The other outfielders named first-team were (2016) No. 1-overall pick Mickey Moniak and Yankees first-rounder Blake Rutherford.”

A baseball prospect aims to be known as a five-tool player. That means an ability to hit for average, hit for power, run, field and throw at a high level. McIlwain has put all the necessary traits on display.

“McIlwain squared up the ball a lot that week facing some of the best prep pitchers in the country,” Manuel said. “He showed above-average bat speed and arm strength, quick feet and range in the outfield. In other words, he had a chance to have at least major-league-average tools across the board.”

Unfortunately, spending so much time on USC’s bench made 2016 a waste from a baseball perspective.

“He lost a year of development in baseball by enrolling early for football,” Manuel said. “Going 1-for-10 last spring in baseball while splitting time did not help his baseball chances. Baseball hitters need reps. He missed a lot of reps last year. I would guess he’s going to miss a lot this year, too, if he’s South Carolina’s starting QB.”

To put it bluntly, Manuel sees more possibilities down the line for McIlwain on the diamond than on the gridiron, not to mention a longer career, guaranteed contracts and fewer concerns about injury.

“How many 6-foot NFL QBs are there? They can’t all be Russell Wilson,” he said. “I hope he realizes that sooner than later and comes back to baseball, where I would surmise — being ignorant of his football talent, but recognizing he’s a 6-foot QB — his professional future has a higher ceiling, longer duration and more earning potential.”

McIlwain has likely had dreams about making both the NFL and Major League Baseball. But Bo Jackson was one in a million. So were Deion Sanders and Brian Jordan. Also, Jackson was a tailback. Sanders and Jordan were both DBs. While Jameis Winston played baseball at Florida State, he was a pitcher.

Jackson could fall out of bed and run for 100 yards. But throwing for 300 takes serious dedication.

does he need to pick?

At the college level, where the demands are so much more on and off the field, it’s fair to wonder if trying to be good at two sports might prevent McIlwain from being truly fantastic at one.

Unquestionably, McIlwain has shown that he has what it takes to be an NFL-caliber quarterback or an MLB-ready outfielder if he maxes out his gifts. There are only so many hours in a day, though. For every swing he takes in a batting cage, that’s one less pass he could be throwing in 7-on-7 drills.

Maybe being a multi-sport star won’t limit him at South Carolina. It didn’t at Council Rock North.

“I have never known Brandon without baseball being in the mix,” Mann said. “Brandon is the most competitive kid I ever coached, and the fact that he is also an elite baseball prospect speaks to the fact that he loves to compete and he works harder than anyone else on the field.”

With shorter high school seasons, there is more time between the end of football and the beginning of baseball. But even when McIlwain was focusing on cowhide, he made sure never to forget pigskin.

“Even during baseball season, he would ask me to meet him before school several times a week to throw the football and make sure he was staying on point with his fundamentals and mechanics,” Mann said. “I don’t know how he does it, but even during baseball season, he is able to still remain focused on growing as a quarterback and putting in the required work to be great.”

Muschamp knew the deal when he signed McIlwain. All that aside, his downfall at Florida revolved around his inability to find a competent QB. John Brantley, Jacoby Brissett, Jeff Driskel, Treon Harris, Skyler Mornhinweg, Tyler Murphy — all failed Muschamp more often than not.

McIlwain has to share the gig with Orth for now. But Muschamp has to share McIlwain with baseball.


John Crist is the senior writer for Saturday Down South, a member of the FWAA and a voter for the Heisman Trophy. Send him an e-mail, like him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

Image Credit: University of South Carolina and USA TODAY Sports


Source: Saturday Down South

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