Spur of the Moment: McIlwain’s spring sets the bar in Gamecocks’ quarterback race

South Carolina quaterback Brandon McIlwain finished spring practice taking snaps with the first-team offense for head coach Will Muschamp. (Sean Rayford/Special to The Post and Courier)

COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s quarterback troubles of 2015 were presaged by a spring game in which the most notable pass was to a country music singer. While no one could have foreseen the glut of injuries that sidelined a pair of signal-callers, last year’s garnet-on-black exhibition unquestionably left Gamecocks fans feeling less comfortable about the position than when they arrived.

And with good reason. The only legitimate touchdown pass that day was a 2-yard out from Michael Scarnecchia to Terry Googer, with 26 seconds remaining in a fourth quarter full of screen passes and runs. As much fun as it was to watch, Connor Mitch’s 22-yard first-quarter strike to Darius Rucker didn’t count. It’s not like Hootie had to catch the ball in double coverage in the end zone.

The bottom line is that spring game offered a chance for one of USC’s quarterbacks to seize control of the starting job, and none did. Perry Orth had the worst day statistically among South Carolina’s signal-callers that afternoon, and he ended up starting more games than anyone else the following season. The exhibition itself was a 14-13 grinder that in hindsight offered plenty of evidence of the offensive stagnancy to come.

By comparison, the South Carolina spring game contested April 9 felt like something out of Air Coryell (look it up, kids). There were five touchdowns from the quarterback position, four of those scoring passes, none of them to musicians. And there was a breakout performance from true freshman Brandon McIlwain, who seemed to have a strong grasp of the offense and a solid comfort level in the up-tempo system, tossing two scoring passes to fellow freshman Bryan Edwards, running for another TD, and finishing with 169 yards in what amounted to about a half a game of real playing time.

Yes, it’s a spring exhibition against USC’s defense, which the past two seasons hasn’t exactly been the Steel Curtain (that’s two 1970s NFL references, for anyone who’s counting). But this spring game provided what the last one sorely lacked: a quarterback who showed enough command to make you believe that he can own the job in preseason camp. You want someone to win the job, not claim it by default, and McIlwain displayed more than enough signs that he’s capable of the former.

But it was more than just the freshman’s play. On the whole the passing game looked improved regardless of which quarterback was behind center, a testament to co-coordinator Kurt Roper’s system. It’s not quite a spread, it’s not quite a no-huddle, but it tries to push the tempo and allow playmakers to make plays in space, something McIlwain, Jamari Smith or Deebo Samuel were successful with at times. No question this team needs more weapons, no question the running game still appears a work in progress. But offensively, South Carolina’s spring game also inspires a bit more confidence than it did a year ago.

Of course, this quarterback race isn’t over. Another four-star phenom, Jake Bentley, is scheduled to arrive on campus this summer after foregoing his senior season of high school. No one is quite sure how Nunez, who missed half of spring practice with a hyperextended left knee, fits into all this. Orth earned rave reviews from both coaches and teammates before he went down with a broken collarbone, and will surely resume his candidacy for the starting job in August.

But from an outsider’s perspective, at least, the Gamecocks appear to have a starting point heading into offseason workouts. While there are no guarantees he’ll be USC’s starter Sept. 1 at Vanderbilt, McIlwain through his performance in the spring has given the Gamecocks something to build on. A bar has been set: if you’re going to be the starter, you’re going to have to be better than what we saw from the freshman on April 9, which was pretty good. And that’s a long, long way from where USC was this time last year.