It was not exactly ideal circumstances for Ryan Hilinski’s first career start Saturday.
He had to start the home opener at Williams-Brice Stadium as a true freshman quarterback who had never thrown a college pass.
In place of a three-year starter who was injured in the season opener.
And in a game in which the Gamecocks absolutely had to perform well after a devastating season-opening loss that had the fan base frustrated and disgruntled.
Talk about pressure.
But that was nothing for a young man who has already dealt with more than any person should ever have to.
After losing his older brother, Tyler, 18 months ago, this was nothing. Tyler, a quarterback at Washington State, committed suicide while suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries.
After dealing with something like that, making his first career start in a must-win game before a home crowd of 70,698 was nothing.
“[When] something very tragic happened to your family, and being a very public situation, it makes you grow up very quickly,” head coach Will Muschamp said. “It helps you handle criticism. It helps you handle negative people in the day and age we live in now with social media. … His family has been through just a tragic situation and he’s lived that in public life, so obviously he’s handled it tremendously well.
“I’m very proud of him today.”
Hilinski made Gamecocks fans proud with a magnificent performance in a 72-10 rout against Charleston Southern. The true freshman from Orange, Calif. completed his first 12 passes and led South Carolina on touchdown drives on its first two possessions. He scored the second touchdown on a 4-yard run and completed 24 of 30 passes for 282 yards and two TDs in just three quarters.
With Hilinski under center, South Carolina rolled up a school-record 775 yards of total offense. The 72 points were the most under Muschamp and the fifth-most in program history.
“I thought Ryan played extremely well,” Muschamp said. “He started 12-for-12 and was very accurate with the football and quick with his decisions and decisive where he was taking the football, and we played well around him.
“He played well for his first start.”
Hilinski’s play was critical and encouraging after the Gamecocks lost senior starter Jake Bentley in the season-opening loss to North Carolina. Bentley suffered a Lisfranc injury in his left foot and could be out for the season.
Hilinski, who won the backup job in training camp, needed to play well to rally South Carolina after a 24-20 upset loss last week and to give the Gamecocks hope for the future.
He wasted no time proving he could handle the job. He completed his first four passes on the first drive, including an 11-yarder to OrTre Smith to put South Carolina in the red zone. Rico Dowdle capped the 70-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run.
On his third possession, Hilinski completed four more passes and scored the touchdown himself, following Dowdle into the end zone on a 4-yard run.
His first touchdown pass was a 10-yarder to senior Bryan Edwards. Less than two minutes later, he hit Edwards again for a 60-yard score as South Carolina led 44-3 at the half.
Hilinski’s strong start and calm, cool demeanor didn’t surprise his teammates.
“Ryan has always been real calm, real cool,” Edwards said. “He’s always been outspoken and he’s never been afraid. I knew he wasn’t going to be rattled or anything like that.”
“He just kept his normal routine, like he’s been doing even when he wasn’t playing,” Dowdle said. “He just came in and stayed focused and tried to be vocal to the team. I think he handled it very well.”
Muschamp, the former head coach at Florida and an assistant at two other SEC schools, has seen true freshmen throw up on the sideline before their first game. He’s seen some beg not to go into the game.
“He’s a very confident young man and is very confident in his abilities,” he said. “Obviously you always have to take the quality of the opponent [into consideration], but I thought he handled himself extremely well for a first start. … Because he is so bright and intelligent, he will be able to handle a lot.”
Hilinski showed his confidence and maturity after he missed Edwards on a deep route for his first incompletion.
“He’s one of those guys who is always on to the next play,” Edwards said. “He said, ‘I missed you, I’m going to get you on the next one,’ and that’s what it was.”
On second-and-8 from the South Carolina 40, Hilinski threw a perfect pass right into Edwards’ hands for a 60-yard touchdown. After the score, he pointed to the sky and flashed three fingers in honor of his brother, who also wore No. 3.
“He did a good job getting the ball to me,” said Edwards, who had five receptions for 112 yards and two TDs. “We knew we were going to get a lot of cover-3 with a little bit of 4 mixed in so we knew the shots were going to be there. It was just a post route and a good ball by Ryan. He hit me in stride for the touchdown.”
A week after the offense sputtered, compiling just 270 yards of total offense against a North Carolina team that finished 2-9 last year, Hilinski ran the offense to near perfection. Muschamp said the Gamecocks did not reduce the playbook or simplify the offense for the true freshman.
“There is room for growth, but I’m not going to say we are spoon-feeding him,” he said. “The guy can handle what we are doing. He’s extremely bright, he’s been here through spring, he’s been here through an entire installation in the summer, he went through training camp, so I think it’s easier for a younger player, especially at that position, when you start dwindling down to game plans. That’s not as fast as the entire playbook. You are really able to narrow down the scope of what we are asking you to do in the ball game as far as the decisions that need to be made.”
Hilinski was confident and prepared, he wanted South Carolina to go up-tempo most of the game, which could help the Gamecocks against a much tougher schedule the rest of the season.
“I think that helps him, he likes playing fast,” Muschamp said. “That’s one of the things he pointed out to us; that was something he felt more comfortable doing. I think we’ll continue to expand what we do moving forward.”
No one was more happy for Hilinski than backup quarterback Dakereon Joyner, who had a 41-yard touchdown run and led the offense on two second-half scoring drives.
“I was extremely happy for him,” he said. “Once I heard he was going to start, I was very excited because I know what he can do. The rest of the world didn’t know what he can do; now they know. I knew what he was capable of, so I was definitely excited for him.”