When Brandon McIlwain left South Carolina, there was disappointment all around — the two-sport athlete was expected to lead the Gamecock football team as a four-star quarterback recruit and excel on the baseball diamond as a top MLB prospect.
Instead, as a freshman, McIlwain was passed by Jake Bentley on the gridiron and got just 10 at-bats in baseball. In March of 2017, he announced his transfer to California amid reports of general unhappiness.
More than two years later, McIlwain was back in the Midlands, this time as part of the Florence RedWolves, a summer baseball team in the Coastal Plain League, and as far as he’s concerned, there’s no hard feelings.
“It’s awesome (being back),” McIlwain told The State. “I loved my time here and I love being back. It’s a lot of fun to be around my family again and also be back in Columbia a couple times too.”
McIlwain has deep roots in South Carolina — his parents both grew up in-state, and he still has family in the Columbia area, family that has come out to watch him whenever the RedWolves play the Lexington County Blowfish.
“It’s amazing, especially going out to Cal now, they can’t come out to nearly as many games as they would before, but now I’m able to have extended family come to the games, I have my grandma coming, some of my uncles, and my dad and mom are able to make it to a lot of the games here in Lexington,” McIlwain said.
McIlwain’s time at Cal hasn’t been without complications — he struggled when given the starting quarterback job for the Golden Bears, throwing eight interceptions compared to two touchdowns to go with an average of 152.6 yards per contest. This past spring, he worked as an “athlete,” splitting time between wide receiver, running back and quarterback in Wildcat formations.
In baseball, he hit .258 in 20 games, connecting on his first collegiate homer before breaking his foot midway through the season. Still, in the MLB Draft this June, McIlwain heard his name called in the 26th round by the Miami Marlins.
“I had a good idea I was gonna get drafted, but after my foot, I didn’t know if it was still gonna happen or where or whatever was gonna happen, so I was really just driving in the car with my dad and I got a call from the scout saying they were gonna draft me,” McIlwain said. “So it was really, really, really exciting experience, it was cool that I was able to be with my dad for that too. It was just really exciting.”
In the end, however, he elected to not sign a professional contract and instead return to California for his redshirt junior year.
“Part of it was my education. I have another year and then I’ll be done with my degree. Part of it was my foot and just making sure I’m recovered and ready to go for when I get to make that professional debut,” McIlwain said. “And a lot of it was making sure it was the right time, the right time for me mentally, physically with all my health stuff going on.”
That decision has kept him in Carolina throughout the summer, and he’s taken advantage of that time to reconnect with some of his former Gamecock teammates.
“I got to go back last time, I got to stay with one of my friends, AJ Turner … and got to see a bunch of guys on the team when I got to go over there,” McIlwain said. “It brings back a lot of memories. It’s awesome to be down here, to be able to see my friends, to see my family, really enjoyed being back here in Columbia.
“It’s something that I think is gonna last my entire life. I enjoyed my time at South Carolina so much and I have so many good friendships and good relationships here, I know I’ll always be coming back.”
Gridiron memories aside, though, McIlwain said he primarily sees his future in baseball, not football. Cal football coach Justin Wilcox confirmed on Wednesday that McIlwain has given up the sport to focus on baseball.
“I’m loving baseball, and to have the opportunity to do that ... I still love football, football’s still amazing, it’s gotten me a lot of opportunities with baseball and being able to get drafted. I kinda see my dream there. Baseball’s been going pretty well for me so far,” McIlwain said.