USC freshman McIlwain continues to impress in QB race

South Carolina freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain, shown here during his senior season at Council Rock North High School in Newton, Pa., has established himself as the No. 1 QB in spring practice thus far. (Rich Kennedy/The Intelligencer)

COLUMBIA — Will Brandon McIlwain be the player to beat for South Carolina’s starting quarterback position in preseason camp?

It certainly appears that way with one week left in spring practice, after the true freshman was sharp passing the ball in a closed scrimmage this past Saturday. McIlwain continues to take snaps with the No. 1 unit with two other Gamecocks signal-callers limited due to injury.

“Brandon had a lot of command in how he directed our offense when he was on the field,” coach Will Muschamp said in a media briefing Monday. “We were pleased with his decision-making.”

With Muschamp’s first spring practice set to wrap up in Saturday’s noon spring game, no quarterback appears in better position to seize the starting job in preseason camp than McIlwain. The four-star recruit from Newton, Pa., graduated from high school early so he could enroll at USC in January. But no determination on a starter for the Sept. 1 opener at Vanderbilt will be made until August.

Rising senior Perry Orth, whom Muschamp said has separated himself from the remaining contenders along with McIlwain, has been out since March 26 with a broken collarbone in his non-throwing shoulder. Rising sophomore Lorenzo Nunez has been out over a week with a hyperextended left knee. And rising junior Connor Mitch returned to practice Saturday after missing one session due to pinkeye.

“We’re going to take the competition into fall and kind of continue to look at doing what’s best for South Carolina,” Muschamp said. “Perry will obviously be involved in that conversation as well, and I want to get Lorenzo back this week.”

So far, the only quarterback apparently eliminated from starting consideration is rising sophomore Michael Scarnecchia. Muschamp praised a third-down pass Mitch made to receiver Deebo Samuel in Saturday’s scrimmage. “It was a big-time throw,” the head coach said.

Mitch, Orth and Nunez all started games in last season’s 3-9 campaign. McIlwain, who would be in his final semester of high school had he not graduated early to enroll at USC for spring practice, has been taking snaps with the No. 1 group since Orth was sidelined with the injury.

“Brandon did some really nice things,” Muschamp said of the quarterback’s performance Saturday. “I think he was 12 of 14. Took care of the football, made good decisions, took good command. We didn’t limit anything we were doing on either side of the ball. So there was a lot thrown at those guys.”

Muschamp also spoke on several other topics Monday:

Defensive end Darius English is out for the remainder of spring practice with a pulled quadriceps suffered last week. Receiver Terry Googer is also out for the remainder of spring with a high ankle sprain suffered in the scrimmage Saturday. Muschamp hopes to have Nunez, out since March 19, back this week.

The secondary continues to be an area of concern. “We’re light years away in the secondary,” Muschamp said. At a recent Gamecock Club function, he said he was asked “We’re not going to play off the receivers anymore, are we?” in reference to the approach used last season by former defensive coordinator Jon Hoke.

“I said, ‘The way we’re playing, we’re going to play way off.’ … We’ve got to become tougher on the perimeter,” he said. “We’re not very tough, and some of us don’t like to tackle. That’s an issue in football, especially if you’re playing on defense.”

As far as receivers, Muschamp called Samuel “very explosive,” and said Googer was having a good spring before he got hurt. Former running back Jamari Smith continues to work in the slot, and freshman Bryan Edwards has shown promise. “After that, we really look at the tight ends,” Muschamp added.

Former Summerville High School coach John McKissick attended Saturday’s scrimmage and had lunch with the USC staff afterward. Muschamp said he extended the invitation after speaking at an event last month commemorating the retirement of McKissick, whose 621 wins are the most of any football coach at any level.

“He’s obviously a legend,” Muschamp said, adding “621 wins is hard to fathom. He’s done a wonderful job, not just for the state of South Carolina and high school football, but football in general.”

Would Muschamp ever consider moving part of spring practice to Florida, as Michigan did this year? “You ever been to Michigan in March? I’d go to Florida if I were them,” he said. “I would never move spring practice off our campus, unless we wanted to do it within our state for our fan base or if our stadium was being renovated or something like that.”