Freshman Brandon McIlwain made a fast impression on his South Carolina teammates last January. McIlwain’s impact has continued, so far, on the football field his first season.
The young quarterback led the Gamecocks (2-1, 1-1 SEC) to a 20-15 victory over pesky East Carolina last week in his first start and will look to equal South Carolina’s victory total from last year when he opens at Kentucky (1-2, 0-1) on Saturday.
McIlwain was one of new coach Will Muschamp’s top recruits last season, turning down offers from Miami, Ohio State and Tennessee among others. He graduated high school a semester early and enrolled at South Carolina in January.
“He came in worked hard,” center Alan Knott said. “He busted his butt in the weight room. He busted his butt in the film room and that showed a big thing for us.”
McIlwain split first-team reps with returning starter Perry Orth throughout spring and summer workouts. The 6-foot, 205-pound McIlwain looked lost two weeks ago at Vanderbilt, with Orth getting the call in the second half and rallying the Gamecocks from a 10-point deficit to a 13-10 victory.
The next week, it was McIlwain’s turn to attempt to lead the Gamecocks out of a 24-0 hole at Mississippi State. While South Carolina did not win, McIlwain led the team on two touchdown drives in the 27-14 defeat and earned the chance to start against East Carolina.
McIlwain played solidly and without mistakes, completing 16 of 28 passes for 195 yards and zero interceptions. He had scoring runs of 9 and 10 yards as South Carolina took a 14-0 lead and held on against the Pirates, who had entered with wins in six of their previous games with Power Five schools.
Knott, a junior, said McIlwain has commanded the offense so far with his poise and leadership.
“I think he’s handled it tremendously well and I think he’s got a big future in front of him,” Knott said.
McIlwain has his mistakes to clean up, Muschamp said. The coach, though, is pleased with McIlwain’s throws and his knowledge of the offense.
“It is no different than any other player or position,” Muschamp said. “Just continue taking the reps, taking the coaching and doing the things you need to do to be successful.”
Part of that process, for Muschamp, is keeping McIlwain’s head focused on the field. Muschamp does not permit freshmen to talk with media, although the coach said the possibility of that changing is “day to day.”
Co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks Kurt Roper also has not spoken to reporters since the season began.
“Right now I just think (McIlwain) has a lot on his plate. He needs to worry about being the quarterback at South Carolina,” Muschamp said. “That’s the most important thing, along with him playing well for his teammates.”
McIlwain’s teammates are excited about what the young quarterback brings to the offense.
South Carolina tight end K.C. Crosby said McIlwain’s accuracy and strong throws were evident in the spring and throughout summer drills. Each series McIlwain seems to gain a better grasp of the Gamecocks attack.
“That’s just Brandon. He’s going to make sure he takes authority of the situation and take his next game to the next level,” Crosby said
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops sees South Carolina improving the more McIlwain plays.
“I can tell they’re gaining a little confidence and continuity in what they’re doing with him and some of the problems that he presents and some of his strengths,” Stoops said. “They’re going to get nothing but better offensively.”
Crosby believes McIlwain’s running skills and ability to lead a fast-paced offense will lead to good things for the Gamecocks.
The Gamecocks tight end said, “We’re not where we want to be, but we’re making steps to where we need to be.”