COLUMBIA — He wanted the job. That’s why he moved here.
He didn’t want to get it like this, yet Ryan Hilinski is fully prepared to embrace it.
“There’s two things going on at once. You’re finding this out but you’re finding out why at the same time,” Hilinski’s father, Mark Hilinski, said. “We know how much Jake’s meant to this team. Our initial reaction, Kym and I both, we were just shaking our heads, saying, ‘This can’t be.’
“Ryan’s certainly excited to get the opportunity, but it’s with a complete mixed bag of emotions.”
South Carolina’s shiny new quarterback debuts Saturday as the Gamecocks try to glue the pieces of their shattered season together. Last week’s season-opening loss to North Carolina sucked all of the excitement from what was supposed to be coach Will Muschamp’s best team, and clouded his future as well as the team’s.
Fans who suffered through the immense drop-off from finishing fourth in the country in 2013 to not even winning four games in 2015 were understandably livid at the performance in Charlotte, and wanted change. New coach, new play-calls, new personnel, whatever it took to get the season back, USC needed to do it.
As they grumbled about how true freshmen QBs Bo Nix (Auburn) and Sam Howell (North Carolina) led their teams to victory in Week 1 of the season — and there was that other true freshman in the Upstate who steered the archrival to the national championship last season — they wondered why that couldn’t happen here.
Now it could.
“For him to play this year, we probably knew it wasn’t likely. Ryan knew that, we knew that. It was part of the whole package, that it was a good situation to come in and learn under a senior, got four games under the new redshirt rules,” Mark Hilinski said. “The plans changed for a variety of reasons. It’s an awful shame. It’s not dampened it, but you can equally be excited and challenged to help the team.”
Senior quarterback Jake Bentley’s foot injury sidelined him for most, if not all, of the rest of this season. Hilinski is the guy moving forward, a true freshman with plenty of promise.
So how will it go?
“When you’re playing quarterback, you’re a natural leader. He knows he’s got to be vocal and he’s leading our team right now,” center Donell Stanley said. “He’s consistent, he’s doing what we need him to do. I’m excited to see what Ryan will do. I feel very confident in him.”
It will be easier to break in against Charleston Southern than the next opponent, No. 2 Alabama, but Hilinski is still a true freshman. For the folks mentioning his name along with Steve Taneyhill’s with the same starry-eyed gaze, yes, Taneyhill was and always will be the epitome of USC true-freshman quarterbacks.
There have been four since, including Bentley in 2016. Nobody brings up Mikal Goodman, Lorenzo Nunez or Brandon McIlwain like they do Taneyhill.
But Hilinski will have his chance to do what Taneyhill did — win some games and save a season that started so disastrously.
The Gamecocks exhibited several problems that had nothing to do with the quarterback against UNC. Hilinski can’t fix USC’s offensive line issues or help the defense make tackles.
“I think the biggest thing is just do the things he feels comfortable with. And that’s what we’re kind of working through, through practice yesterday and today,” Muschamp said. “Do some things he feels confident in, number one, and number two, we got to play well around him.”
His coach and teammates are raving about his ability and his gift of being able to handle the moment. Even as the youngest of three football-slinging sons, Ryan Hilinski always stood out.
“He’s much thicker, stronger, kind of farmboy-strong. Ryan always had more everything, much bigger legs,” his father said, recalling Ryan’s first high school start. “We felt like his body was ready for it, but first game, you’re into the gauntlet.
“His confidence level in understanding the playbook and the coaches is really high. But he’s smart enough to know when the whistles blow and the fans scream … you never know.”
Hilinski played very well in his first start in what some label the SEC of high-school football. They lost by a touchdown. He went on to be one of the most coveted prep QBs in the country, giving Muschamp one of the highest-rated recruits of his tenure.
He always expected to start. Someday, not one game into his freshman year.
“You come here to play and help the team win, but like all athletes that work hard, they feel they can help the most when they’re on the field,” Mark Hilinski said. “My read of Ryan is he’s very confident in the info he’s digesting, knowing the fact that you have to show out on the field.”
Showtime begins Saturday.
South Carolina’s last five true freshman starting quarterbacks and their first games
USC 34, Massachusetts 28
Oct. 22, 2016
Bentley was 17-of-26 passing for 201 yards and two touchdowns. He guided the Gamecocks to a 4-3 record after USC started the season 2-4.
USC 20, East Carolina 15
Sept. 17, 2016
McIlwain was 16-of-28 passing for 195 yard and rushed for 34 yards and two touchdowns. He started the next two games (each losses) before losing the starting job to Perry Orth, then Bentley. McIlwain transferred to California.
USC 31, UCF 14
Sept. 26, 2015
Nunez was 12-of-22 passing for 184 yards and two touchdowns, and he rushed 18 times for 123 yards. He started the next game, a loss to Missouri, before getting hurt. He played sparingly the rest of the season, was switched to wide receiver and then transferred to Southeastern Louisiana.
Ole Miss 36, USC 10
Oct. 2, 1999
Goodman was 8-of-15 passing for 147 yards. He started two more games, splitting starting duties with Phil Petty and Kevin Sides. He played defensive back and receiver for the rest of his USC career.
USC 21, Mississippi State 6
Oct. 17, 1992
Taneyhill was 7-of-14 passing for 183 yards and two touchdowns in one of the most memorable games in school history. Sitting at 0-5 and with the team having voted for coach Sparky Woods to resign that week, Taneyhill engineered five wins in the final six games. He became one of the most prolific and beloved QBs that USC has ever had.