THOM’S TAKE | Ryan Hilinski’s success will define Will Muschamp’s legacy at South Carolina

The idea that the legacy of an established football coach rides on a 19-year old quarterback who hasn’t taken a single meaningful snap may seem far-fetched at first. But really, it isn’t.

Through three years of being the head football at the University of South Carolina, Will Muschamp has compiled a record of 22-17. On the surface, that doesn’t seem great. However, considering what Muschamp had to work with when he began at USC, everyone should be applauding. Especially considering the history of the university’s football program, Coach Boom is the winningest head coach after his first three seasons.

Along with being the winningest head coach after three seasons, Muschamp will most likely have coached the stats leader in almost every category for the quarterback and wide receiver position. Quarterback Jake Bentley is closing in on the records for wins, passing yards, and touchdown passes, while wide receiver Bryan Edwards will most likely break the records for catches, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns during the 2019 season. Both were huge pieces of Muschamp’s first recruiting class in 2016.

Without those two, it’s safe to say that the program wouldn’t be close to where it is today. It’s really quite the feat when you consider how Muschamp is known for not being able to field a competent offense.

So, after three seasons, Muschamp is the winningest coach in USC football history and will have coached the statistical best QB and WR to ever come through the school. That’s impressive — no one can deny it.

But what if I told you none of that really even matters when it comes to Will Muschamp’s legacy at South Carolina?

Instead, incoming freshman QB Ryan Hilinski’s success while playing football for the Gamecocks is what will define Will Muschamp’s legacy as the head football coach at South Carolina.

The California native is the most important piece of what will go down as the most significant signing class of the Muschamp era at USC. Hilinski is considered by some the best quarterback prospect in the country for his recruiting class and has drawn comparisons to Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. He has all the intangibles you look for in a quarterback: mechanics, leadership skills, mobility, everything. If you could make a quarterback in the lab, Ryan Hilinski would be the result people want.

Assuming the team stays relatively healthy, newly-hired running backs coach Thomas Brown figures out the current mess of a running game, and USC keeps bringing in solid recruiting classes, then everything else will be up to Muschamp. He’s going to have the most talented roster at South Carolina since the peak of the Spurrier era, along with the most talented quarterback to ever play for South Carolina. Expectations are going to be very high (as they should be).

Muschamp is essentially betting his career as a head coach on a 19-year old kid who’s never even strapped a Gamecock helmet on yet. Hell, Hilinski might not even play a meaningful snap in the 2019 season. Barring injury to Jake Bentley, the chances of him playing at all are slim to none. But as soon as #19 walks off the field for the last time, the odds are that the keys to the program are going to Hilinski.

What happens after those keys are handed over to Hilinski will determine Muschamp’s legacy not just at South Carolina, but as a college head coach. The hype for the California native is huge, probably the most since a guy named Jadeveon Clowney signed with the Gamecocks in 2011. Clowney’s hype was very much deserved, and Hilinski’s is too. He’s the most physically talented quarterback to step foot in Columbia since Stephen Garcia, and Hilinski also has every off-field attribute a college coach could ask for.

Most people that I’ve spoken to are expecting at least one trip to Atlanta out of Hilinski. I feel the same way. If the Gamecocks can’t get to the SEC championship with arguably the most talented quarterback to ever wear Carolina on their chest, the most talented in-state corner since Stephon Gilmore in Cam Smith, and a freaky amount of talent on the defensive line, then it’s just not gonna happen. Obviously you need depth, a lack of injuries and some luck to win the SEC East, but it would still be a major disappointment to not do so during Hilinski’s time as starter.

Anyway, there’s more to it than just Hilinski. He’s going to need pieces around him for his teams to be good enough to win the SEC. A big time, 1,000 yard running back is going to be his best friend and what he needs the most. Sure, Bryan McClendon could turn the offense into an air-raid attack with Hilinski throwing for 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns, but they wouldn’t have much success winning games in the SEC.

The days of lining up in the I-formation every play are gone, but if you don’t have the ability to control the clock and give your defense breaks, it’s going to get you killed. It showed against Florida this season, with the Gators coming back down 17 simply because they could run the ball and we couldn’t. Not having a big-time back is what has limited Jake Bentley’s success at South Carolina, and it will definitely limit Hilinski’s if the issue persists.

Assuming Hilinski and the USC offense can do their part, the other major key for Ryan to win is going to be for Muschamp to finally create the defense he was brought into Columbia to build. It has started to form slowly, with Jaycee Horn being the first Muschamp defender to play with that swagger and tenacity we’ve been waiting on since DJ Swearinger departed for the NFL.

But you’re going to need more than just one guy, and there multiple pieces such as soon to be 5-star DB Cam Smith, 5-star DE Zacch Pickens, and 4-star Joseph Anderson that everyone agrees are going to be very good players.

Develop those core star players, and the others that are also very good talents. If he can build the shutdown defense that Will Muschamp is known for, then it will be damn near impossible for South Carolina to win less than 10 games with Ryan Hilinski as the quarterback.

So let’s say that after Hilinski graduates and goes to the NFL, the teams he lead went 7-5, 8-4, 8-4, and 9-3 with no trips to the SEC championship and one win over four years against Clemson and Georgia each. Obviously, I’m not saying that’s going to happen nor do I think it will happen, but it’s a hypothetical. When you consider the history of USC football, that’s not a bad 4-year stretch, but I still don’t think any South Carolina football fan would be satisfied with it. I don’t know if Muschamp would get fired after that and he probably shouldn’t be, but his biggest chance at getting rid of the label of defensive coordinator playing head coach lies in Hilinski’s time as a Gamecock.

On the other hand, let’s say Muschamp somehow wins an SEC championship with Hilinski at the helm. If you’re winning the SEC championship, there’s a solid chance that you’re making the college football playoff. If Will Muschamp somehow does those two things, he would immediately become the greatest football coach of all time in USC history.

Steve Spurrier gave fans three 11-win seasons and one SEC East title, but winning the SEC championship and making the playoff is one heck of an accomplishment. Winning an SEC championship at South Carolina would forever change the way people talk about Gamecock football and would change how Will Muschamp is viewed as a head coach.

If Muschamp wins THAT game with Ryan Hilinski as his quarterback, then he and Hilinski are going to forever ve worshiped by Carolina football fans. There’s no doubt about it. But, if you have the most talented quarterback in school history along with some of the most talented rosters ever and you can’t do anything other than a few nice seasons and a some cool bowl games, then it’s a huge disappointment. Muschamp would still have the label of a coach who can’t win big games, and the South Carolina will have wasted some of the best players to ever come through it’s program.

Just think about it. The most talented teams to ever wear garnet and black had three straight seasons of being 11-3, and none of those teams ever made it to Atlanta. Spurrier blew his chances at winning a national championship and it would be a shame for Muschamp to do the same. Although I don’t think any teams of the next few years will be as talented as the teams during Spurrier’s peak, it would still be extremely disappointing to not even make the SEC championship.

When’s the next time South Carolina is going to have a 5-star quarterback from California? When’s the next time South Carolina is going to have the most talented defensive backfield since Stephon Gilmore and DJ Swearinger were roaming back there? When’s the next time you’re going to have a defensive line with multiple 5-star guys lining up together? It’s almost as if the solar system is aligning to focus directly on Columbia, SC.

All of that talent is going to be in the hands of Will Muschamp. How he prepares and develops said talent to play in the SEC, which will lead directly to their on field success, is totally on him and his coaching staff. Muschamp got a pass, deservingly so, for his first 3-4 years at South Carolina because of the absolute mess left by Steve Spurrier.

But after the 2019 season, all of these players are his guys. There aren’t going to be any more excuses. Unless something like this season happens where you just have a freakish amount of injuries, it’s the head coach’s fault for a lack of winning. If Muschamp doesn’t at least get to the SEC championship with the most talent he’s probably ever going to have, then when is he going to do it?  

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