Top 10 USC, No. 2: Brandon McIlwain sets the bar in Gamecocks’ quarterback race

True freshman Brandon McIlwain is a leading contender for the starting quarterback postion at South Carolina. (File, Sean Rayford/Special)

COLUMBIA — Brandon McIlwain did not win South Carolina’s starting quarterback job in spring practice. But by taking command of the Gamecocks and excelling in the spring game, the true freshman set the standard for whomever does.

Nervousness over South Carolina’s signal-caller position was assuaged somewhat by McIlwain’s three-touchdown performance in the spring exhibition, in which he showed both a comfort level directing his teammates and an advanced ability to pass the football. It was a needed boost for a Gamecocks squad beset with instability at the quarterback position since the departure of Dylan Thompson.

By themselves, McIlwain’s spring performances weren’t enough to earn the freshman the starting nod. He exited spring practice on rather level footing with rising senior Perry Orth, who started eight games in last year’s 3-9 campaign, and missed the second half of spring ball with a broken collarbone in his non-throwing shoulder. Another highly-touted freshman, Jake Bentley, will join the fray in the fall.

Connor Mitch, who started two games last season before being sidelined with hip and shoulder injuries, has transferred to James Madison. Lorenzo Nunez, who also started two games last season, remains a question mark after missing almost all of spring with a knee injury. Bentley, for all his four-star promise, will be playing catch-up in preseason practice.

McIlwain, who graduated high school a semester early so he could enroll at USC in time for spring practice, clearly has a firm grasp on the system after passing for two scores and running for another in the spring game. “A lot of command, a lot of maturity,” head coach Will Muschamp said that day.

All of this paints a clear picture: anyone who wins the quarterback job at South Carolina is going to have to pry it from Mcllwain’s right hand, if they’re capable of doing it at all. The level of competition among the quarterbacks has jumped several levels from where it was last season, when former head coach Steve Spurrier almost begrudgingly named Mitch starter in the preseason, and injuries left Orth as the last man standing at the end.

Those days are gone. This was no middling spring game, as USC fans watched in 2015, when the only touchdown pass went to a country music singer (guest wide receiver Darius Rucker, who wasn’t exactly worried about footsteps in the end zone). McIlwain has not reached this point by default. The freshman, through his performance over 15 spring practices, set a bar that anyone else will have to exceed to win the job over him.

“We have trust in him that all I have to do is do my assignment, get my route right, and he’ll get the ball to us,” receiver Javon Charleston said of McIlwain after the spring game. “As far as command, he’s a great leader.”

Competition makes everyone better, and competition wasn’t always present in South Carolina’s injury-plagued quarterback race of 2015. Orth was due to begin throwing again in June, Bentley is on campus and throwing with teammates, and regardless of where Nunez ends up, the Gamecocks promise to have a much more robust quarterback battle this preseason than they did at any time last year.

And at the forefront of it is McIlwain, who as a high school senior passed for 1,720 yards and 18 touchdowns, and rushed for 1,545 yards and 31 scores. Recruited primarily by Spurrier and former quarterback coach G.A. Mangus, McIlwain may prove the former staff’s parting gift to South Carolina. Because even if the freshman doesn’t win the starting job, he’ll set the standard for whomever does.