Matt Connolly

Why Brandon McIlwain was unable to get playing time in baseball

Attempting to play college football and baseball is tough to do at any school. Trying to do so at an SEC university such as South Carolina is next to impossible.

Brandon McIlwain, who announced Wednesday that he is transferring, is the latest former Gamecock to learn that tough lesson. He joins Ahmad Christian, D.J. Neal, Kwinton Smith and Shon Carson as former USC athletes who arrived in Columbia with dreams of being two-sport stars before finding out that dreams often do not become reality.

Christian, Neal and Smith transferred before making much of an impact in either sport. Carson finished his career at South Carolina and was a solid change-of-pace running back for Steve Spurrier but did not provide much on the baseball diamond.

McIlwain came to USC with higher expectations. He was a four-star dual-threat quarterback, and a potential first-round pick in professional baseball.

McIlwain enrolled early so that he could compete for the starting quarterback job and play baseball for the Gamecocks last spring.

He tried to juggle both as an 18-year-old but was behind in baseball from the start.

South Carolina recruits some of the top baseball talent in the country, and while those players were spending the fall of 2015 going through workouts and scrimmages, McIlwain was leading his Council Rock North football team in Newton, Pa.

McIlwain ended up getting 10 at bats during his freshman year and got one hit with an RBI while striking out four times.

After starting three games during his freshman season of football before losing the job to Jake Bentley, the plan was for McIlwain to focus on baseball this semester.

Gamecocks coach Chad Holbrook was excited about McIlwain’s potential and singled him out as a player who was impressive during January workouts.

“He’s hit the ball out of the park, and he’s hitting it with authority. He seems like a kid again. He’s smiling and he’s having fun,” Holbrook said then.

While McIlwain impressed in batting practice, once preseason scrimmages began it was a different story.

In several scrimmages he managed only a couple of hits and other players vying for playing time in the outfield were more impressive.

Those players had taken part in fall scrimmages and had seen live pitching for months before McIlwain got his shot after USC’s football season ended.

It did not make sense for Holbrook to insert him into a crowded outfield when he was less impressive than his competition.

Nine games into the season TJ Hopkins, Carlos Cortes, Jacob Olson, Danny Blair and Alex Destino had started games in the outfield. McIlwain had not with his only playing time coming as a pinch runner against Kansas State.

Ultimately trying to play both sports at USC proved to be too much of a challenge. McIlwain is probably talented enough to play baseball for the Gamecocks, but not part time when there are plenty of other talented players on the roster.

“You don’t see a whole lot of success at a high level in both sports,” Holbrook said Thursday. “It’s obviously an incredible challenge. It takes a rare, elite athlete. He’s certainly capable of doing it and performing at a high level in both sports. Sometimes in baseball, I can’t really speak for football, but patience is required. You have to get a lot of reps. You have to get a lot of at bats. That was tough for him to get here.”

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