By Jeff Owens | Photo by Travis Bell
As one of the most decorated high school players in the state and one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, Dakereon Joyner arrived at South Carolina to much fanfare and chasing high expectations.
It would have been easy for the highly regarded freshman to get discouraged last season, playing just two series in mop-up duty against Chattanooga.
“It was different for me. But I kept my faith and I know everything happens for a reason. I wasn’t discouraged,” Joyner said. “I told everybody before I even signed, I’m coming here and I’m going to do whatever the team needs me to do. I’m a team player, and that’s the way it is.”
Joyner’s high school resume compares with the best quarterbacks in the country. He threw for more than 10,000 yards in his high school career and led Fort Dorchester to its first state championship as a sophomore. As a junior, he passed for 3,642 yards and 44 touchdowns and rushed for 1,089 yards and 12 more scores. As he senior, he accounted for more than 3,400 yards and 52 touchdowns and finished his career 40-3 as a starter.
As an Elite 11 quarterback, South Carolina’s Mr. Football chose South Carolina over some of the top programs in the country.
But with veteran Jake Bentley firmly entrenched as the starter and fifth-year senior Michael Scarnecchia as the backup, Joyner was the third-string quarterback and spent most of his freshman season leading the scout team before redshirting.
“I guess it was up and down, kinda something I didn’t really expect,” he said. “But it was OK, I enjoyed every second of it.”
After a year learning South Carolina’s up-tempo offense and adjusting to major college football, Joyner entered the spring in a heated battle for the backup job with redshirt sophomore Jay Urich and four-star recruit Ryan Hilinski, a high-school All-American and the Sam B. Nicola National High School Player of the Year.
The three young QBs were on center stage in the Garnet & Black Spring Game Saturday, with Joyner and Hilinski alternating possessions with the two offensive units while starter Jake Bentley played just two series — or just long enough to toss a touchdown pass to former teammate Deebo Samuel, who snuck off the sideline for the celebrity TD. Urich, meanwhile, did his best Deebo imitation, catching nine passes for 130 yards while also playing two series at QB.
Head coach Will Muschamp’s primary objective was evaluating the progress of Joyner and Hilinski as they take their battle for the No. 2 job into the offseason and fall camp. He liked the way both young quarterbacks ran the offense and managed a game that had few offensive penalties and no communication breakdowns.
“We threw a good bit at them as far as corner pressure at times and they were right in their reads,” he said. “ … I thought both guys managed our offense well. I thought both of them showed some really good things.”
Joyner completed 10 of 23 passes for 185 yards with an interception and a 62-yard touchdown pass to Urich. He also rushed eight times for 60 yards and led three scoring drives.
Hilinski completed 24 of 36 passes for 206 yards. He threw mostly short passes in the first half but led two second-half scoring drives when his unit opened up the offense.
Their performance mirrored what their teammates had seen in spring practice.
“Dakereon was here last year, so seeing his growth from year one to year two has been the biggest eye-opening thing for me with how far he has progressed. It was encouraging,” Bentley said.
“What stood out to me with Ryan is how he was able to come in here and pick up all the plays and have a good grasp of what we are doing on offense. They both have been very impressive all spring and really just competing hard and getting after it.”
Senior A.J. Turner had a unique perspective while playing both running back and defensive back during spring camp.
“I feel like for both of them this spring, they have taken a big jump, especially Dakeroen because he has been here longer,” Turner said. “So to really see him grow from last spring to now, he is doing real well, he’s throwing the ball better. He has always had the ability to run and that always is a good thing, being able to have a mobile quarterback.”
Not only did Joyner get his most significant playing time in the spring game, afterward he met with the media for the first time in his college career. He admits the adjustment to college football and college life was a struggle.
“First and foremost, just the schedule. Just not having time to do a lot of things, especially school-wise,” he said. “You really only have Monday through early Thursday to get your schoolwork done. I saw my grades start to drop, but I got back on top of them. That was the main thing I kinda struggled with.”
Joyner struggled grasping the offense, which is typical for incoming freshmen, and with passing accuracy. He just laughed when asked how long it took him to adjust.
“I kinda never really got comfortable, because it was always something different being thrown at me,” he said. “I’m a more comfortable player. I got my head in the playbook, I got into film and I really dialed into what coach was trying to teach me.
“This year compared to last year, I am more coachable than ever. I think I am more coachable than I have ever been. I have great coaches around me and I appreciate all my coaches and all my teammates.”
Joyner credits his teammates with helping him master the offense and gain confidence.
“Just boosting my confidence. Even throughout the whole spring, just boosting my confidence and allowing me to just play my game,” he said.
Hilinski dazzled coaches and teammates with his passing accuracy and his ability to throw the deep ball.
“Ryan is more of a stay-in-the-pocket passer, but he definitely drops dimes,” Turner said.
Joyner credits Hilinski for pushing him in camp. The two have waged a fierce battle, but Joyner says the competition has made both of them better. He calls Hilinski a “very, very unique kind of guy, kind of a west coast kind of guy.”
“He’s a competitive guy, a level-headed guy. He’s very talented,” he said. “I think throughout this spring and when he first came in, we made each other so much better, just competing every single day. Even Jay, we made each other so much better, and I appreciate that and all that he does.”
Though Joyner was a highly regarded dual-threat quarterback entering college, many considered him more of a runner than a passer. In his only game action last year, he completed just 1 of 2 passes, while rushing three times for 24 yards. He says he has improved his passing and showed it during the spring game. He completed a 22-yard pass on the first scoring drive and had a 25-yard completion and an 18-yard run to set up the first touchdown.
His propensity for running, he said, is dictated by the offense.
“Some things just happen to work out that way,” he said. “You go back and watch the film, things just kinda work out that way. I go through my progressions and I do what I am supposed to do and do what I am coached to do, and that’s what I am going to continue to do.”
He doesn’t want to hear talk about him switching positions to take advantage of his speed and athleticism.
“I would have went anywhere else in the country. I would have went to Alabama or Clemson,” he said. “I came here to play quarterback and that’s what I’m going to do. I know my coaches believe in me and that’s that.”