Editor’s note: This story appears in the Fall 2016 edition of GoGamecocks The Magazine, which was available inside Sunday’s edition of The State for home delivery subscribers.
The upcoming choice for president has many Americans feeling underwhelmed at best. For those people, Trent Dilfer has another option. Unfortunately, Dilfer’s pick may be busy as South Carolina’s starting quarterback because it’s Gamecocks freshman Brandon McIwain.
“I started calling him Pres,” said Dilfer, an ESPN analyst and the head coach of the prestigious Elite 11 summer quarterback camps. “I’m not saying he wants to go into politics, but we need more people like Brandon McIlwain in politics. We need more people like him in influential positions in our country. He’s the type of guy that I think could have a massive influence as an athlete but more importantly in life.”
Gamecock fans will settle for a massive influence this fall at South Carolina, where the 6-foot, 205-pound freshman from Newtown, Pa., is competing with senior Perry Orth and fellow freshman Jake Bentley for the starting quarterback position. McIlwain, a four-star prospect, graduated from high school early and enrolled at South Carolina in January in order to participate in spring practice, where he and Orth distanced themselves in the quarterback race.
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Although Orth started eight games last year and has a vast experience advantage, McIlwain has left a trail of believers from coast to coast who believe he’s the man who eventually will take the starting job. One of those people even moved across the country at least partially because of McIlwain.
Will Hewlett played quarterback at Nevada and in the Arena League before becoming a private quarterback coach. Ten years ago, he was living in Florida and working with a traveling skills camp when he met 9-year-old Brandon McIlwain at a camp near McIlwain’s home in California.
Soon, Hewlett moved his entire family to California, where he founded The Range, a private quarterback tutoring facility for which he is now the lead quarterback coach. He has been working with McIlwain full-time since.
“We hit it off,” explained Hewlett, who refused to let the McIlwain family’s move to Pennsylvania derail the relationship.
That move came before McIlwain’s eighth grade year, just as Hewlett was beginning to see the signs of something beyond just precocious maturity.
“I watched his seventh grade film and I thought, ‘I don’t think this kid is normal,’” said Hewlett, who has gone on to coach more than 60 collegiate quarterbacks. “I couldn’t imagine there was anyone else that was much better than him out there so it became a very real possibility that this kid was potentially going to be a collegiate prospect very quickly.”
When McIwain enrolled at Council Rock North High School in Newtown, Pa., Hewlett went to the school and told the coaches “you are getting one of the top quarterbacks in the country.”
“Sure enough that’s the way it worked out,” he said.
McIlwain, who has not been made available to the media by South Carolina, started four seasons and threw for 6,545 yards and 54 touchdowns while rushing for 3,882 yards and 70 touchdowns. After his senior season, he was named the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year and earned a trip to the Elite 11 camp.
That Elite 11 invitation brought him to Dilfer.
“He’s one I’ll never forget,” Dilfer said. “We encounter some exceptional players, exceptional athletes and then some exceptional people. Brandon fits into all three of them. There’s very few that have matured beyond their years in all three areas. Brandon is one that jumped out at me as one of those guys. He’s mentally very prepared. Things move slow to him as a player. Nothing moves too fast.”
Dilfer ranks McIlwain in the “good-to-very-good category” in terms of his throwing ability and off the charts when it comes to maturity, which is echoed by almost everyone who works with McIlwain.
“There are guys you are going to find who are bigger and have stronger arms. There are guys who are going to be faster, but you’re not going to find anyone in the country that has all the skill sets that he has,” Hewlett said. “He’s complete in terms of the mental edge that he provides, the ability to come through in the clutch. He is just not fazed by pressure at all. I have never seen it affect him.”
McIlwain “plays with a chip on his shoulder,” ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said.
“Obviously, he wasn’t blessed with ideal physical measurables, but he does have a tremendous skill set and I’ll tell you what he is, he’s highly competitive,” Luginbill said. “He has a little bit of an edge to him, which I like.”
Dilfer encouraged the quarterback to lean on that edge when he was deciding whether to choose pro baseball or come to South Carolina on a football scholarship. McIlwain hit .414 with 28 RBIs and stole 22 bases in his junior season and was projected as a second round draft pick had he chosen that route.
“I was very clear with Brandon that he has the capacity to do whatever he wants to do, that there are no limits to what he can do, don’t let people put limits on what he can do,” Dilfer said. “At the time, people were saying, ‘You can’t do both. You have to make a decision.’ He was getting a lot of advice I disagreed with. I just tried to help him understand that he has the capacity to do both.”
McIlwain played for the Gamecocks baseball team this spring although he didn’t see much action because football spring practice kept him away from the baseball team for most of the first half of the season. He finished the year with one hit in 10 at-bats. Meanwhile, at the football complex, he was impressing both his head coach and veteran teammates with his poise.
“He has not been fazed,” head coach Will Muschamp said.
And Muschamp has tried. Before several spring practices, he encouraged offensive coordinator Kurt Roper to jump on McIlwain at the first opportunity.
“I told Roper a couple of days, ‘Get after him,’ ” Muschamp said. “He’s handled those things very well. I think his wiring is right.”
His more experienced teammates have noticed that.
“He’s still making transition, but Brandon is working hard and doing all the right things and taking care of his stuff off the field,” senior offensive lineman Mason Zandi said. “I could never complain about Brandon.”
McIlwain won’t be the only young hotshot quarterback on campus this fall. Bentley is also a four-star prospect, and he had just as many high school accolades as McIlwain in one less season of prep action. Dilfer doesn’t expect that to matter.
“Nobody knows what a college player is going to be until they’ve had to manage everything that is in their life as well as the temptations of college life as a collegiate athlete,” Dilfer said. “Jake is a very talented kid. Brandon is a very talented kid. The guy that ends up taking snaps from center is the one who is going to manage all that in his life. I have a great deal of confidence in knowing Brandon will do that.
“It doesn’t matter to me who they bring in, may be more talented, may have a stronger arm, may run faster, may be bigger, blah, blah, blah. None of that matters until they have to deal with all that is being a collegiate athlete especially at quarterback. I’m looking at guys that have the capacity to manage all that as well as have enough stuff to be a great player. To me there are very few that have the capacity to do that as well as Brandon.”
A closer look at Brandon McIlwain
▪ Class: Freshman
▪ Ht./Wt.: 6-foot, 205-pounds
▪ Hometown: Newtown, Pa.
▪ Prep honors: 4 stars; Gatorade Player of the Year in Pennsylvania; invited to Elite 11 QB camp
▪ Prep stats: Started four seasons and threw for 6,545 yards and 54 TDs while rushing for 3,882 yards and 70 TDs.
▪ Also: Plays baseball and was considered a second-round draft pick had be chosen to enter the MLB draft.