As the South Carolina offense has battled injuries and struggled to run the ball, defenses have made things even tougher on freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski.
“They have been trying to mix things up to confuse him,” said wide receiver Bryan Edwards, who missed the last game with a knee injury. “They are trying to get hm rattled and get his feet hot and force bad balls and interceptions and things like that.”
But Hilinski, who has thrown the ball 104 times in the past two games, is getting better, head coach Will Muschamp said. Though it might not show up on the stat sheet or scoreboard, Muschamp believes the young QB is getting better in game management and decision-making.
“I think he's incrementally made improvements each week,” Muschamp said. “Two months ago, [quarterbacks coach] Dan [Werner] might be explaining to him, ‘This is what [I see].’ Instead now, [Ryan is] coming to the sideline saying, ‘I saw the safety.’
“He understands those things, and it just takes time. And what he's doing is very difficult. He's playing the hardest position on the field as a true freshman. We need to do a better job around him, helping him. But I've been very proud of Ryan and how he's handling it, 'cause he's handling a lot.”
Though South Carolina, 4-7, will need to play its best game of the season to beat rival Clemson, 11-0, Saturday, the key will be the performance of Hilinski. Quarterback Jake Bentley threw for a career-high 510 yards and five touchdowns against Clemson last year. If Hilinski can be efficient and produce just half of that, he could give the Gamecocks a chance against the No. 3 Tigers.
In 10 starts since Bentley’s season-ending injury, Hilinski has completed just 58 percent of his passes for 2,252 yards and 11 touchdowns. Though he got off to a solid start against Charleston Southern and Alabama, he has struggled in the last five games (four losses) when South Carolina has struggled to run the ball, catch the ball and protect their young quarterback.
Those struggles have allowed defenses to tee off on Hilinski, who was sacked 10 times and pressured 23 times in South Carolina’s last four losses.
“When we take care of him and protect him and he can stay in the pocket, he can [throw] the football,” center Donell Stanley said. “We just have to keep him up there and keep him uplifted and keep him confident and let him lead the team.”
Though Hilinski has struggled, and battled his own injuries, Muschamp likes the way his young quarterback has battled through the challenges.
“I’ve been really proud of Ryan,” he said. “It’s very difficult. There’s a lot of pressure on you, and that position affects everybody in the organization — the defense, special teams — a lot of pressure has been put on Ryan and I’m proud of how he’s handled it.
“The thing about Ryan is he takes great ownership in his job.”
Part of that maturity comes from Hilinski’s family and it’s unique and tragic history. Ryan’s older brother, Tyler, committed suicide in January of 2018 while playing for Washington State. Ryan and his family are using his death to raise awareness of mental illness through the Hilinski Hope Foundation.
Mark and Kym Hilinski, who moved from California to Lexington, S.C. when Ryan signed with South Carolina, are also big supporters of the Gamecock program.
“His mom and dad, Mark and Kym, having sons as quarterbacks before and being through this process, they understand what he’s going through,” Muschamp said on his call-in show last week. “And when you have somebody at home who understands what you’re going through, it can help you through these situations. I know Mark and Kym have been extremely supportive of him and us.”
As Hilinski continues to mature and gain experience, the game will slow down for him, Muschamp said, making him much more prepared next season.
“That's a huge part of the offseason program,” Muschamp said. “The mental side of it, obviously the physical side of it, of getting stronger. Getting your body more ready for a run through the SEC, which is tough.”
He will also be much more experienced, having faced challenge after challenge in a trying season.
“Unfortunately, it’s been a great learning experience for him and a tough learning experience,” Muschamp said. “He’s going to be a lot better from it, and we are as well moving forward.”