**Story by Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe**
South Carolina head baseball coach Chad Holbrook is disappointed but not surprised that Brandon McIlwain decided to transfer from the Gamecock baseball and football teams.
"When you coach for 20-plus years, kids transfer, so I wouldn't say any particular kid is a surprise. … Everyone wants to play, and I respect that part of it," Holbrook said.
McIlwain, a two-sport star from Newton, Pa., was attempting to play both sports at South Carolina but had seen more of the football field than the baseball diamond so far.
The star of the team's spring football practice a year ago, McIlwain started three games at quarterback last year but lost his starting job to Jake Bentley, another true freshman. While McIlwain mostly struggled as a true freshman, Bentley led the Gamecocks to four wins in their last seven games and entered this spring as the clear-cut No. 1, bumping McIlwain to a back-up or specialist role.
McIlwain saw even less playing time in baseball. He got just 10 at-bats as a freshman while splitting his time between baseball and spring football practice. He was expected to play the full baseball season this spring but had appeared in just one of the first nine games as a pinch runner.
"It's disappointing, and we wish Brandon well," Holbrook said Thursday as his team prepared to travel to Clemson for a big three-game series this weekend. "He's a great kid and certainly a talented player. He just wants to start anew and try to find the right place for him from a football standpoint and baseball standpoint. And we're going to do everything we can to support him."
McIlwain was a two-sport star in high school and was projected to be a first-round pick in last year's Major League draft before signing with South Carolina to play both sports. Holbrook said attempting to play both sports at an SEC school or the major-college level was a huge challenge.
"You don't see a whole lot of success at a high level in both sports," he said. "It's obviously an incredible challenge and it takes a rare, elite athlete. He's certainly capable of doing it … but sometimes in baseball … patience is required and you have to get a lot of reps and you have to get a lot of at-bats, and that was tough for him to get here."
McIlwain, an outfielder, was expected to get playing time this year in right field, but the development of sophomore Danny Blair, junior college transfer Jacob Olson and true freshman Carlos Cortes has pushed him down the depth chart.
Many have speculated about his future, where he will transfer to and if he will continue to play both sports. His teammates believe he has a long-term future in baseball.
"Brandon is a phenomenal athlete. I think wherever he goes, regardless of what happens in the future, he is going to be very successful," OF/DH Alex Destino said Thursday.
"Brandon has some of the rawest skills I have ever seen from a baseball player, and that's coming form a kid who devotes only half of his time to it. I think Brandon could be very special if he could denote all his time to baseball. I'm not saying he should quit football, but he definitely has a future in baseball."
"He's going to have a great career with whatever sport he chooses," he said. "If he continues to do both, I feel like he can do both."
Numerous football and baseball players tweeted their support for McIlwain after he made his announcement Wednesday.
Bentley went to South Carolina's first baseball game this spring and said prior to spring football practice that he and McIlwain were close friends.
"We are very close. He was the first guy to congratulate me when I threw a touchdown, and I was the first guy when he scored, too," Bentley said. "There is no animosity there. We (were) competing on the field, but we are definitely close friends."
"I love Brandon," Destino said. "Me and him were very close and I hate to see him go, but he is a grown man and he makes his own decisions. I respect whatever he does."
Holbrook felt the same way when discussing McIlwain Thursday.
"I have enjoyed him immensely. I enjoyed being around him and I'm certainly going to be a big fan of his going forward," he said. "I'm going to be a big fan of his and cheer for him in a big-time way and hopefully support him in any way if he ever needs me."