Only in a spring scrimmage would the coach of a defense ever consider declining a holding penalty on a touchdown, but for Will Muschamp, the choice wasn't difficult: Pick up the flag and put the points on the scoreboard.
Late in the first quarter of South Carolina's spring game on Saturday, true freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain looked to pass out of the shotgun, with his first-string offense at the 18-yard line. Playing with, essentially, personal two-hand touch rules as the quarterback in a practice game, McIlwain stepped up and took off running, darting down the sideline for an easy touchdown.
In a real game, he would have been hit hard for a sack, had offensive tackle Mason Zandi not committed one of the most obvious holds you will ever see. A referee threw a flag, but acting as coach for both sides, Muschamp -- the ex-defensive coordinator -- declined the penalty, allowing the first touchdown of the game to stand.
So the game went, everything tilted slightly toward the offense. That's not unusual for a spring scrimmage, when defenses show vanilla looks and don't blitz often -- in this case, the Gamecocks limited themselves to five-man rushes -- but the contrast at Williams-Brice Stadium was particularly stark because of who the head coach is and what he's trying to prove.
South Carolina spread the field and pushed the tempo, allowing the offense to dictate the flow of the scrimmage. McIlwain, who was not allowed to be tackled, took off on several successful runs. He is a true freshman who would ordinarily still be in high school, had he not graduated early, and yet in the team's spring showcase in front of 32,000 fans, he got most of the reps with the first-team offense.
Muschamp insisted that South Carolina did nothing that opposing coaches couldn't already see on tape from his past or the previous stops of offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. Yet it was impossible to watch the Gamecocks' scrimmage and see anything but, in his first public performance as head coach, Muschamp trying to make an emphatic opening argument that he has changed.
When South Carolina hired Muschamp in December, the move was met with a lot of suspicion. Just a year earlier, Muschamp had been fired as head coach at SEC East rival Florida. After going 11-2 in his second season with the Gators in 2012, he went 10-13 the final two years. Throughout his tenure, Muschamp's teams were plagued with questions about outdated conservatism on offense, with a defense-first philosophy that failed at a school with high expectations.
Injuries were partly to blame, especially the terrible injury luck during the 4-8 season in 2013, but Muschamp cycled through three offensive coordinators, struggled to find a quarterback, struggled to find playmakers and struggled to put together a consistent offensive line. As a former defensive coordinator, Muschamp didn't run the offense directly, but it was clear throughout his time in Florida that the offense fit within his over-arching football philosophy. The result was three straight seasons in which the Gators ranked 92nd or worse in yards per play, and he ultimately was dismissed.
After one season as Auburn's defensive coordinator, Muschamp is back as a head coach, back in the same division of the same conference, where South Carolina is trying to catch back up to Florida, the team that struggled again on offense last season but still bounced back to win the SEC East title in Jim McElwain's debut season. The Gamecocks are trying to close that gap under the leadership of the coach that Florida got rid of, and Muschamp is charged with answering doubts by successfully learning from past mistakes and adapting to become a more forward-thinking head coach. He's trying to do it with Roper, the former Duke assistant he hired in 2014 in an effort to save the Florida offense, which proved to be too little, too late.
Roper's Gamecocks looked sharp Saturday, with McIlwain showing an impressive command of the offense as he was let loose to push the tempo from the shotgun with three- and four-wide looks. A four-star recruit from Council Rock North High School in the suburbs of Philadelphia, McIlwain completed 19 of 26 passes for 169 yards and two TDs and ran for the touchdown.
There are many caveats. Spring game stats should always be taken with a grain of salt. McIlwain wore a non-contact jersey. Many of his completions were quick, easy, horizontal throws to the outside. And he got more reps than usual, because fellow quarterbacks Perry Orth (collarbone) and Lorenzo Nunez (knee) both sat out.
Still, it was hard to view Saturday as anything but a success for McIlwain, and thus an early confidence-booster for the offense, which sputtered to 110th in scoring last season, a 3-9 debacle in which Steve Spurrier abruptly retired in early October. McIlwain outplayed last season's opening-day starter, Connor Mitch, and he did it mostly with the starting offense against the starting defense. His stiffest competition in trying to win the job may still come from Orth, a senior who attempted the majority of the team's passes in 2015.
In attempting to rebound from the 2015 disaster -- which featured a loss to The Citadel -- South Carolina's hurdles extend far beyond quarterback. Muschamp seems less worried about the QB situation, where he has options, than the dearth of proven skill-position talent. That was already a problem for the Gamecocks last year -- and throughout Muschamp's tenure at Florida -- and now they're trying to replace star receiver Pharoh Cooper and tight end Jerell Adams. The Gamecocks struggled Saturday at running back, where they lose Brandon Wilds, and no returning player had more catches than Deebo Samuel's 12.
Muschamp singled out Samuel as a breakout candidate but still said he was concerned with depth at the skill positions, in addition to depth in the defensive backfield.
Ultimately, though, the future of South Carolina, and thus the future of Muschamp as a head coach in this second chance, is tied to whatever happens at quarterback. A touted recruit, Jeff Driskel stumbled at Florida, then had his best season once he transferred to Louisiana Tech. At South Carolina, the early favorite to be handed the reins is a freshman who shouldn't even be a freshman yet.
McIlwain still has to beat out Orth, Nunez, Mitch and Michael Scarnecchia, in addition to a surprising new challenger in the summer: Jake Bentley, a four-star class of 2017 recruit who is one-upping McIlwain by graduating from high school a full year early and re-classifying as a class of 2016 player. The son of new South Carolina running backs coach Bobby Bentley, Jake Bentley will attempt to make a ridiculously quick jump to an SEC starting quarterback job, although he's probably a long shot, given the promising head start McIlwain has on him.
"A lot of command and a lot maturity," Muschamp said of McIlwain. "Obviously, he's a really good athlete, but I think he throws the ball extremely well. I thought he made a couple of really nice throws [Saturday]."
McIlwain is a busy potential starting quarterback. A highly regarded baseball prospect, McIlwain opted for college football instead of the MLB Draft, but he's not giving up baseball, either. In addition to emerging as a frontrunner for the QB job, he has appeared in seven games as an outfielder for the South Carolina baseball team this spring.
His baseball future may also be bright, but on the football field, McIlwain may prove to be the most important player Muschamp has ever coached.
Given that he inherited a 3-9 team with a lot of holes, Muschamp won't be burdened with astronomical Year 1 expectations. Just getting back to a bowl game will be enough for the Gamecocks, and thus McIlwain -- should he win the job -- does not have to be an instant star. Still, the direction of the offense will be closely scrutinized as Muschamp attempts to correct the mistakes of his past and prove he is capable of succeeding at South Carolina where he failed at Florida.
None of those questions will be answered until the fall and future seasons, when the games actually matter. For one day, though, the message was clear anyway: This time, Muschamp wants to show he's willing to avoid doing anything that stands in the way of the offense.