Josh Kendall

Orth vs. McIlwain vs. Bentley: USC QB decision going down to wire

Starting Thursday, Will Muschamp gets “the ultimate do-over,” Rick Nueheisel believes.

“He has another chance to be a head coach in the SEC,” said Neuheisel, formerly the coach at Colorado, Washington and UCLA and now an analyst for CBS. “If he learned anything from his time at Florida, it’s to lock into a system and get a quarterback that fits that system and let’s go. The only guy they brought in that they identified as someone that fits (offensive coordinator Kurt) Roper’s system is the young guy. That being said, there are other kids there with experience.”

There it is. The central pitfall of Muschamp’s four-year tenure at Florida becomes the central question heading into the first year of his do-over at South Carolina. Go with comfort of experience or the promise of potential? Having been undone by the wrong quarterbacks with the Gators, Muschamp is going to take his sweet time before picking the right one for the Gamecocks.

South Carolina starts the season in less than 72 hours, and as of lunchtime Monday, Muschamp and Roper hadn’t decided whether senior Perry Orth or freshman Brandon McIlwain will start when the team kicks off against Vanderbilt on Thursday at 8 p.m. in Nashville, Tenn.

“We have a pretty good idea of where we’re headed with it,” he said.

Both will play against the Commodores. Or, at least, two will play. Freshman Jake Bentley hasn’t been eliminated from the competition, according to the official depth chart released Monday, but Bentley has worked almost exclusively with the third team throughout the preseason.

“Two guys will play,” Muschamp said. “If I felt like somebody had been head and shoulders above the other guys, then we would have probably named a starter. I don’t know that we’ve seen that, and I think all three guys offer a little bit of a different skill set for us at the quarterback position.”

Orth started eight games last year, throwing for 1,929 yards, 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions. McIwain and Bentley each were four-star high school prospects, although McIlwain has an experience edge because he enrolled early enough to compete in spring practice this year.

As tempting as it might be to find the quarterback of the future today, Neuheisel would lean toward playing the more veteran player, even if he won’t come right out and say he believes that’s what Muschamp should do.

“Will Muschamp, being a defensive-minded coach, knows that one of the dangers of playing a guy right away, especially in a situation where he may not have all the tools around him, which I think is the case at South Carolina right now relative to the competition, is you might lose his confidence,” said Neuheisel, a quarterback at UCLA from 1980 to 1983. “You can have a guy get out there, and because you’re not willing to give him the whole inventory of things that are necessary to compete against all of the defenses that they are going to see when they play an SEC schedule, you can put him out there and put him in harm’s way.”

He pointed to Missouri freshman Drew Lock, who last year became the latest cautionary tale for playing good young players too early at the position.

“It got ugly” for Lock, Nueheisel said. “Now, he is going to have to be a special type of competitor to put that behind him like a golfer puts a triple-bogey behind and go play the next hole. Will Muschamp has to be real careful of, ‘Is the guy ready to go out there and play with everything we need to be successful?’ 

The key for the Gamecocks will be to play “non-losing football,” Neuheisel said.

“Whether that’s with a freshman who is just learning, or somebody who has been out there and has some scars from having been out there, that’s a decision Will is going to have to come to terms with,” he said.

The answer seems clear. Start the senior. Play the freshman. Let it sort itself out.

“I know this,” Neuheisel said, “Will is going to try to win that game on defense, because that’s what he can control. That’s where his personnel is probably closer to even with the opponents, and a game against Vanderbilt where it’s going to be a game of fewer mistakes, and it may be that the senior is prone to make less. It might be safer to go with a guy who has played a little and have a chance to win that game on defense.”

Of course, it’s safer. On Thursday, we’ll see if Will Muschamp wants to play it safe with his second chance.

Game info

Who: USC vs. Vanderbilt

When: 8 p.m., Thursday

Where: Vanderbilt Stadium, Nashville, Tenn.

TV: ESPN

Line: Vanderbilt by 3 1/2

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