COLUMBIA — Three hours before kickoff at Williams-Brice Stadium, South Carolina’s quarterbacks sat around a conference table in a meeting room, thick binders open in front of them. Co-offensive coordinator Kurt Roper went over sets and routes and hand formations, and then he posed a question.
“Are you doing everything to get yourself in the mindset to compete the way you need to compete?” he asked from the head of the table, urging his quarterbacks to approach Saturday’s spring game as the real thing. At least in Brandon McIlwain’s case, the answer appeared a definitive yet.
The true freshman didn’t win the Gamecocks’ starting job for the 2016 season, but he certainly put himself in position to do just that with a breakout debut Saturday. McIlwain completed 18 of 22 attempts for 145 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for another score to lead the Black squad to a 35-14 victory over the Garnet.
“A lot of command, and a lot of maturity,” head coach Will Muschamp said. “Obviously he’s a really good athlete, but he throws the ball extremely well. ... The decision-making was really good, and the one-minute drive was impressive. He’s continued to improve from practice one until now, and has to make some tremendous strides in the offseason.”
A four-star recruit who would be in his final semester of high school had he not graduated early to enroll at USC for spring practice, McIlwain capped a strong spring that ended with him taking snaps with the No. 1 offense. Saturday he scrambled for an 18-yard score, and found fellow freshman Bryan Edwards for touchdowns of 4 and 12 yards.
“He knows what he expects from guys, and he makes sure he does his part as a quarterback to make his reads,” said receiver Javon Charleston, who had four catches for 54 yards. “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. As far as command, he’s a great leader.”
Rising junior Connor Mitch finished 7 of 11 for 108 yards with a touchdown, while rising sophomore Michael Scarnecchia went 8 of 11 for 99 and a score. But neither matched McIlwain, who looked comfortable running Roper’s up-tempo system, and could be on the brink of bringing some needed clarity to a quarterback situation that’s been muddled since Dylan Thompson departed in 2014.
Muschamp has said the starting job won’t be decided until preseason camp, when four-star recruit Jake Bentley, who plans to forego his senior season of high school, will be on campus. USC played Saturday without rising senior Perry Orth (broken collarbone) and rising sophomore Lorenzo Nunez (hyperextended left knee), who should also factor into the race.
“Competition is our best friend as coaches, and we have a lot of competition,” Muschamp said. “... That’s something that excites me moving forward, because that’s going to help our football team be better. I think we have enough savvy and leadership in that group to really do a good job in the offseason.”
Converted running back Jamari Smith, now a slot wide receiver, made a team-high five catches for 49 yards, including a 5-yard score from Mitch. Christian Owens caught a 9-yard touchdown from Scarnecchia, and Darius Paulk dove in for a 1-yard rushing score. Elliott Fry converted two of three field goal attempts, connecting from 29 and 48 yards in blustery conditions.
The Gamecocks played first-team offense against first-team defense, and utilized much of what they’ll use in the fall. “We didn’t do a whole of scaling back,” Muschamp said. Sherrod Pittman had six tackles to lead the Gamecocks defense, which did not force a turnover.
Receiver Deebo Samuel was the game’s leading rusher, getting all 33 of his yards on a single carry. While Muschamp wants to find more playmakers on offense, he potentially has one behind center in McIlwain, who wasn’t cleared to speak to the media Saturday but said plenty through his actions on the field.
“He’s great,” linebacker T.J. Holloman said. “What he has to grow into is being more vocal — being a freshman, leading this offense, just taking control. Everyone can look to him and know he’s going to make this play, know everything. The physical tools are all there.”
— The only injury Saturday was a high ankle sprain suffered by Owens, Muschamp said. Linebacker Jonathan Walton did not play because his longtime girlfriend gave birth to a son, Isaiah, the head coach added.
— With spring football over, it’s back to baseball for McIlwain. “I don’t know if he’s playing today, but knowing him, he’ll be in the dugout,” Muschamp said. “We’ll tackle the situation moving forward, but (baseball coach) Chad (Holbrook) and I are on the same page in what we want to do. It’s worked very well to this point.”
— Chris Moody, a graduate safety who planned to transfer after last season but returned to the Gamecocks in spring practice, finished the day with three tackles and had a lunging breakup of a McIlwain pass in the end zone.
“All my teammates welcomed me back with open arms,” he said. “It’s a new coaching staff, so I got a late jump on that. But it’s just football. You come in, you learn, you play. My teammates have been real good with welcoming me back.”
— The spring game was preceded by a flag football contest involving over 100 former players, including Anthony Wright, Ryan Brewer, Todd Ellis, Humpy Wheeler and Mike Hold. The first touchdown went to 94-year-old Lou Sossamon, an All-American in 1942, who was helped into the end zone by teammates.