Josh Kendall

‘Thermostat leader’ McIlwain takes charge of USC offense

The leadership of a South Carolina offense that currently sits last in the SEC in scoring now rests in the hands of a true freshman. Nobody who knows Brandon McIwain well is worried about that.

“He’s a thermostat leader,” said former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who coached McIlwain at the prestigious Elite 11 high school camp. “There are thermometer leaders that kind of adapt to the climate of the environment. He’s one that changes it. When he’s around everyone feels his presence. He jacks that thing up to 80 real quick. The room changes when he’s in it.”

McIlwain, a 6-foot, 205-pound former four-star recruit, made his first collegiate start Saturday against East Carolina. He threw for 195 yards on 16-of-28 passing and rushed for 34 yards and two touchdowns on seven carries as South Carolina beat East Carolina 20-15.

“Coming in as a true freshman, he had poise and he had leadership,” Gamecocks senior offensive lineman Mason Zandi said. “Brandon is a very confident and calm guy. You can look in his eyes and tell he’s not nervous.”

That precocious maturity is one of the reasons South Carolina felt comfortable replacing fifth-year senior quarterback Perry Orth with McIlwain, who last year was playing high school football in Newtown, Pa.

“The good thing about Brandon is he has a lot of confidence in himself and not in an arrogant way at all, but in a very positive manner,” Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp said. “He believes in his ability. That’s a calming factor for him and for us and for our players in my opinion.”

That ability to affect his teammates is a trait McIlwain has displayed from a young age said the people who helped him get to South Carolina.

“The great thing about Brandon is he knows when to be loose and have fun,” said Will Hewlett, who has been McIlwain’s private quarterbacks coach for almost 10 years and now runs The Range quarterback coaching facility in California. “He knows how to act and relate and communicate and not be that kind of super mature, ‘I’m better than you.’ But when it’s time to process information, there’s no one I’ve met who does it as quick as he does it.”

McIlwain showed an ability to communicate with every type of player while at the Elite 11 camp, Dilfer said.

“He’s not cliquey in his leadership,” Dilfer said. “There are a lot of quarterbacks who can lead a certain amount of people, but they can’t lead the right guard from Iowa the same as they lead the receiver from South Florida. As a quarterback, you have to be able to lead a bunch of different people. He doesn’t have to try. He doesn’t have to work at it.”

McIlwain, who is not allowed by Muschamp to speak to the media, is 10th in the SEC in passer rating. He has completed 52.5 percent of his throws for 356 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions this season. He’s also rushed 27 times for 80 yards.

Dilfer has been betting on McIlwain to win South Carolina’s starting quarterback job since the preseason precisely because of McIlwain’s maturity and leadership ability.

“Nobody knows what (young quarterbacks) are 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. I have a great deal of confidence in knowing Brandon can do that,” Dilfer said.

“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.”