COLUMBIA, S.C. — So much for Will Muschamp taking the Switzerland approach to South Carolina’s spring game, in terms of remaining neutral with the Garnet and Black squads.
Midway through the first quarter on Saturday, just seconds after quarterback Brandon McIlwain‘s 18-yard touchdown scamper was initially wiped out to a holding penalty, Muschamp — the Gamecocks’ first-year head coach — sprinted onto the field to vociferously contest the yellow flag thrown at the left tackle.
Two seconds later, the penalty which seemed cut-and-dried to everyone at Williams-Brice Stadium had suddenly disappeared, as if South Carolina officials were determined to give the maroon-clad fans a high-scoring romp, by any means necessary.
It also might have also been a playful, yet heavy-handed attempt to boost the profile of the freshman McIlwain, one of the most lauded recruits of Muschamp’s inaugural South Carolina class. If the 2016 Gamecocks are indeed in the early stages of a substantial rebuild, it would behoove the program to have a proverbial ‘face’ of this long-term movement.
As such, Muschamp might have trouble adopting a neutral tack to the Gamecocks’ quarterback competition, after observing McIlwain from up close.
Saturday’s individual stats (along with the 35-14 victory for Team Black) aren’t necessarily important — or even wholly accurate — in spring games. However, the eye test confirmed McIlwain’s progressive talents as a runner (designed plays/impromptu scrambles), passer (picture-perfect sideline rainbow to Javon Charleston; pair of touchdowns to freshman Bryan Edwards) and on-field leader, in terms of stealthily directing the Gamecocks’ up-tempo offense.
“We did good on good; I think that’s only way to get better,” said Muschamp, referencing how the first-team offense and first-team defense routinely locked horns during the scrimmage. By extension, Muschamp was pleased with McIlwain’s contribution, officially listed at 30 yards rushing (with one touchdown) and 19 of 26 passing for 169 yards and two TDs.
In particular, Muschamp admired McIlwain’s command of the offense, pocket presence, overall maturity and skill level when throwing the ball. Incidentally, those skills also should translate to success on the diamond, as McIlwain fulfills his spring commitment to the South Carolina baseball team.
“I don’t know if he’s playing today (against Tennessee),” joked Muschamp. “I know he’ll be in the dugout, though.”
(None of the quarterbacks were available to the media on Saturday.)
For McIlwain’s football sake, it also helped that three prominent names in the QB discussion didn’t play on Saturday:
Perry Orth (who was 1-7 as a starter last season) broke his collarbone a few weeks ago, Lorenzo Nunez (knee) was a precautionary holdout and incoming freshman Jake Bentley — the son of South Carolina running backs coach Bobby Bentley — has yet to graduate from high school.
Why is that significant? Just a few weeks ago, the Opelika, Ala.-based Bentley (4-star pro-style QB) was considered a high school junior. But a reclassification of credits has enabled him to graduate a year early and enroll into South Carolina sometime this summer.
To compensate for the quarterback attrition, McIlwain and Connor Mitch anchored the Garnet and Black squads in the first half, co-mingling with both offenses. In essence, they were given extended chances to reduce the number of quarterback questions heading into fall camp … although some Gamecocks pessimists might argue that more questions exist at this crucial position.
“We have that trust in him, as in, ‘I need to know my assignment, need get my route right’ and we’ll be OK,” said Charleston (four catches, 54 yards), regarding the confidence McIlwain exudes to the offense, making quick reads in compromising situations.
And therein lies the fascination: Among Orth, Nunez, Bentley and McIlwain, only Orth (1,929 yards passing, 15 total TDs last year) has an abundance of college experience; and Nunez, Bentley and McIlwain have 15 combined seasons remaining with the Gamecocks — presuming they all ride things out in Columbia.
The smart money says to ride Orth as the Gamecocks’ early starter; but McIlwain seemingly has that “it” quality right out of the gate.
In today’s college football, where backup quarterbacks aren’t always patient with depth-chart realities, Muschamp’s first leadership test with the Gamecocks might entail finding harmony among the passers, while encouraging relentless competition for the starting nod come September.
“We’ll continue to progress … competition is our best friend, as coaches,” quipped Muschamp, the former head coach at Florida (2011-14).
It’s a delicate balancing act for sure, but Muschamp doesn’t seem bothered by the notion of quickly presiding over program-altering moves.
His passion for innocuous holding calls during spring games confirms that.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.