During South Carolina’s 20-15 victory over East Carolina in its home opener, many questions were answered for the Gamecock program, such as who will lead the team in 2016 and where its first-half points come from. Both of those issues were addressed by starting true freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain, who began the contest in the place of senior passer Perry Orth.
While Orth is labeled as a pro-style passer, McIlwain opens up the playbook to more option runs that could keep a defensive front off-balance. This trait proved pivotal in Saturday’s contest, but it is only one of the factors that makes McIlwain a special player.
“I think he has a lot of the it factor that you look for at that position,” South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp said after the game. “Then you think about the spring game… I was extremely impressed with his poise and how he came in and handled himself . He continues to work at it, he’s extremely intelligent and he has a lot of the intangibles and qualities you look for at the position. [I’m] extremely proud of Brandon.”
McIlwain finished his first career start with 195 passing yards, 34 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground. To help ease the transition into the role of a starter, Muschamp attempted to put McIlwain into a position where the offense suits his unique skill set.
“I think that sometimes the tempo helps those guys because it eliminates a lot of the thinking, the pre-snap thinking,” Muschamp said. “So, there are some times in spring and in fall camp where I think he played better with a faster tempo, which we tried to create sometimes.”
But like any new starter, McIlwain did experience some growing pains when attacking a stingy East Carolina defense, particularly when he tried to dig in and uncork a laser pass to one of his teammates. In these situations, McIlwain’s balls tended to sail high, a development that Muschamp is aware of and will work to mitigate in future games.
“Normally its overstriding,” Muschamp said. “When you’re overstriding, you drop your elbow so its pushing the ball. That’s something we will continue to work on. I thought he was very accurate on the deep ball. I thought the one with AJ [Turner], I thought, could have laid out and made it. That one on their sideline, a wheel route from the back where we picked the backer off– and we legally picked the backer off– I thought he had him there. And I thought that was a well thrown ball. He throws the ball extremely well.”
In addition to the impressive performance from McIlwain in week three, the South Carolina defense also caught their eye of its head coach. ECU fielded a quarterback, Phillip Nelson, that entered the game with an 80-percent completion percentage and likes to air out the football, which he did with frequency on Saturday. This put the onus on the Gamecocks’ defensive line to pressure the Pirates’ passer into making questionable throws.
“When you play a team like that you have to get vertical penetration,” Muschamp said. “We could some good vertical penetration, but when you have a guy like that you have to finish on this quarterback. This guy is slippery. He bonces around, hes a gamer and hes a tough kid. He dials and dials and dials, and I’m really proud of our guys for keeping what I thought was relative contain off the backside so when he extends out we have someone there.”
When commentating on the defense, Muschamp highlighted the work strength and conditioning coach Jeff Dillman has put in to ensure the SC defense would be energized late in football games.
“We’ve done an outstanding job of our guys being in shape and being in shape to play a fast tempo,” Muschamp said. “You play close to 100 snaps, that’s a bunch of snaps, especially rushing the passer. That’s the most exerting thing you do when you’re as a player is rush the passer.”
The Gamecocks’ defense also succeeded in bending but not breaking as East Carolina only registered three explosive plays throughout the game despite notching 519 total yards, a total that is a bit deceiving at first glance.
“With all these tempo teams you’re going to play 91 snaps in a game, and you give up 5.7 yards per play to an offense like that, that’s an outstanding job,” Muschamp said.