COLUMBIA, S.C. – Brandon McIlwain has been at South Carolina for a year now and the outfielder – and quarterback – admittedly is more relaxed than he was when he arrived last January.
This January, McIlwain is in his second season with the South Carolina baseball team, has his feet under him as a college student-athlete and is locked in on carving out a bigger role on the Gamecocks baseball team.
“I have been here for a year now, so I have a little more experience,” McIlwain said. “I have been able to do a little more, get through everything and go to school and get that all situated. Now, I get to come here and just play. I get to relax a little more, get in the swing of things and have some fun with it.”
McIlwain, who started three games at quarterback for the Gamecocks this fall, is focused on baseball as his priority this spring and is in a battle for a starting outfield spot. He said he occasionally got some swings in the batting cage during the fall, sometimes using it as a way to relax during football season.
This spring, he’s aiming to see more pitches and see more balls off the bat in the outfield to develop more consistency.
South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook called McIlwain “one of our bright spots” through individual workouts in January and said the sophomore is “hitting the ball out of the park and doing it with authority.” But it’s McIlwain’s mentality that Holbrook noted as a change from last season, when McIlwain had one hit in 10 at-bats as an early enrollee.
“He seems like a kid again,” Holbrook said. “He is smiling. He’s having fun. I might have thrown too much on him last year at this time with all that was going on and all the expectations that were upon him in both sports. Now, he is focused in on baseball and he is going to get his football responsibilities in on his time.
“He is going to be playing baseball. I think that’s a relief to him a little bit. There’s not as much stress on him right now and he feels good about going out there and trying to perform and contribute to our team.”
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound McIlwain said he found the transition difficult this time last year. He came into a brand new situation with new coaches and teammates, while being an early enrollee football player and wanting to play more as a natural competitor.
He said he feels “completely changed” as a baseball player, saying he is stronger, faster and more explosive now with more knowledge of the game than when he last played regularly as a junior in high school.
“He’s strong. He is a strong human being,” junior catcher John Jones said. “He hits the ball and it looks like he missed on one and it is hitting the cat walk and you’re like, ‘Shoot.’ You can just tell how powerful he is in everything he does, in the weight room and everything. He’s just a strong dude.”
McIlwain played centerfield in Friday’s first scrimmage of the spring, but did not hit due to a pulled stomach muscle. Holbrook expects him to play fully Saturday as the Gamecocks get their preseason rolling with a Feb. 17 season opener against UNC Greensboro.
“I’m out here to compete,” McIlwain said. “I want to be able to play as good as I can every day and continue to compete with the other guys out here. There’s a lot of good talent out here, but obviously I want to be on the field. That’s my goal this year is to play and contribute to the team as much as I can and, hopefully, help us have a long stretch at the end.”