South Carolina football: Gamecocks reset, Ryan Hilinski bursts on scene with Alabama next
If a casual college football fan just happened to turn on the television on Saturday, they might not have known that Ryan Hilinski was a true freshman making his first college start.
The blue chip prospect from California played in honor of his brother Tyler, who died last year, and celebrated with teammates like fellow QB Dakereon Joyner, who he beat out in the preseason for the backup job. Words like poise and leadership came immediately to mind to describe Hilinski, who wrote on Instagram multiple times this week how he prepared to start his first game at 12:03 p.m.
Following a banner effort on Saturday in a lopsided 72-10 win against overmatched Charleston Southern, Hilinski now turns his attention to the daunting task of playing against Alabama next Saturday.
Hilinski’s family created a non-profit called “Hilinski’s Hope” to fund programs and destigmatize mental illness, while supporting mental wellness among college athletes. Tyler Hilinski was a quarterback for Washington State who was found dead in his apartment in January 2018 with an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Living with that reality helped Ryan put doses of adversity that come with football into perspective.
“Obviously, (Hilinski) handled the moment extremely well,” coach Will Muschamp said after the game, and added that the carryover from Hilinski’s life helped him in football. “We played well around him, obviously there was no pressure all day. … It was a good day and should have been a good day.”
“He’s a very confident young man, he’s very confident in his abilities. He’s very smart, and a lot of times that breeds confidence,” Muschamp said. “You have to always take in the quality of the opponent. But I think he handled himself extremely well for a first start. I’ve had defensive players, or players play other positions offensively, much less be the quarterback, have nerves walking out there in that environment. … Because he’s so bright and intelligent, he’ll be able to handle a lot.”
Much will be made this week about South Carolina’s upset in 2010 against Alabama, but Saturday signaled the latest change in the program following the foot injury to starting QB Jake Bentley. Does South Carolina have the latest version of Stephen Garcia and Marcus Lattimore needed to spring an upset?
It’s not clear at the moment, but the Gamecocks certainly have options, starting with running backs Tavien Feaster and Rico Dowdle in the backfield, and a pleasant surprise in another freshman, Kevin Harris, who had a breakout game on Saturday with six carries for 147 yards and three touchdowns. It was a reminder from the spring, where Harris’ wide body was difficult to tackle.
Good luck tackling Kevin Harris 😳 pic.twitter.com/49mkOwvfya
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) September 7, 2019
A week after a loss to North Carolina left players, coaches and fans angry, frustrated and restless, the numbers the Gamecocks put up against Charleston Southern gave temporary relief: 72 points, 775 total yards, 29 first downs and three interceptions on defense.
“I think we’re much better than we were last week,” Muschamp said. “I think we’ve made some good adjustments up front on the offensive line that helped us. It didn’t really show today, we’ll see next week how much we’ve come.”
They key will be delivering the ball to known playmakers.
“We’ve got to get the ball to Bryan Edwards,” Muschamp said. “We targeted him 10 times last week, he got the ball one time. We’ve got to put him in situations where regardless, he’s getting the ball. We’ve got to put Shi Smith in situations where regardless, he’s getting the ball.”
The wild card for this season might be Joyner, who Muschamp and others have praised for how he handled losing the backup QB competition. Joyner will play multiple positions, and showed his athletic ability early with a 41-yard run on his first play. He had four runs for 53 yards and a score.
Muschamp explained that Joyner’s role “will continue to evolve” and “we’ll continue to expand that role.”
Along with the move at quarterback, South Carolina also made tweaks along the offensive line, but Muschamp admitted that he wouldn’t see a true test of how that panned out until the Alabama game. Confidence has improved since last week, but Muschamp said players getting in the game and contributing to a victory made a difference in the locker room environment.
This game was a much needed reset for the Gamecocks. But as Muschamp admitted, the true barometer comes next Saturday when Alabama comes to Williams-Brice Stadium.