Philly Special: Why Brandon McIlwain deserves another chance from Cal fans

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When I sat down and interviewed Brandon McIlwain for the first time last August, he had already spent a year exploring Berkeley as a redshirt transfer from the University of South Carolina. His favorite place to eat during his first season at Cal? IB’s on Durant Avenue — a popular stop for hearty burgers and sandwiches, but known most for its cheesesteaks.

It’s an interesting choice for a guy who has had his fair share of Philly’s finest as a proud son of Newtown, Pennsylvania, just a marathon and change from the City of Brotherly Love. Now on the brink of his second active year as a member of the Bears’ football and baseball programs, it’s safe to say that McIlwain is hungry for more than just IB’s in 2019.

In week one of the 2018 campaign, McIlwain was the third Cal quarterback to see the field against UNC.

Six weeks later on homecoming weekend, he was the starter under center and played the entire duration of the contest.

Two months after that, McIlwain received a did-not-participate as the Bears scored just once and threw five interceptions in the infamous 2018 Cheez-It Bowl.

So what exactly happened to the player that head coach Justin Wilcox deemed to have arguably the most “explosiveness” on the team?

The mysterious case of Brandon McIlwain seems simple to fans who solely remember B-Mac’s blunders in key moments throughout the season (yes, they do have a point). From a nightmarish second half at Arizona to a wire-to-wire dud against a winless UCLA team, McIlwain’s critics came firing on all cylinders. Some of the friendly YouTube banter includes the following:

“Turn over machine!!!!”

“Why rotate QBs? Especially when this guy sucks?? Absolutely terrible..”

The portion of blue and gold faithful who can’t stand McIlwain spinning the leather any longer — the same ones who despised the well-documented rotation with Chase Garbers throughout Cal’s midseason struggles — would have a legitimate point about McIlwain’s lack of playing time down the stretch if the Bears’ offense was showing out and putting up decent numbers.

But that simply wasn’t the case, and while not all of the struggles can be attributed to the man operating under center, it’s fair to say that Cal’s quarterback play should and needs to improve if the Bears want to have any sort of shot to compete with the top dogs in the conference. Garbers and McIlwain will be the first to agree with that statement.

With Garbers as the presumptive starter in 2019 and former UCLA recruit Devon Modster pushing for first-team reps heading into fall camp, McIlwain took on the title of “athlete” this spring, defining his position as a “slash”: a quarterback/running back/receiver. It’s fitting that McIlwain, a dual-threat quarterback and talented outfielder on the baseball diamond out of high school, would take on such a label.

Last week, he was taken in the 26th round of the 2019 MLB draft by the Miami Marlins despite having his baseball season cut short by a broken foot. With all arrows pointing toward a return to Berkeley for both sports, it remains to be seen how much the “slash” in Cal’s offense will contribute and ultimately how effective it can be.

The last pass McIlwain threw under center was perhaps the low point of the mess that was the Cal offense in 2018. With Garbers having an up-and-down performance against a stingy Cougar defense, and Wazzu protecting against McIlwain’s primary strength as a runner, Wilcox and Beau Baldwin rolled the dice on McIlwain’s explosive potential.

But with the Bears just one big play away from pulling off a huge upset of a top-10 team, McIlwain went for the home run — pulling the ball from his chest and overthrowing Patrick Laird for his eighth interception of the year. After the Bears failed to rebound from the errant throw, Cal supporters were all over No. 5 and the coaching staff’s decisions.

Just days after trying to conceal his tear-stained face as he faced questions from the media in Pullman’s makeshift locker room turned press conference area, McIlwain sported a new look in more ways than one. He shed his yellow quarterback practice jersey for a generic white offensive top, still sporting No. 5 on his chest and a smile that never seemed to vanish on the practice field. More than three months into his redshirt sophomore season, he was beginning from scratch as a receiver/tailback just weeks after starting under center.

McIlwain even caught a pass (albeit for a 4-yard loss) three weeks after the Wazzu interception that effectively ended his career as a quarterback.

It can’t be easy for a former four-star recruit at the quarterback position to surrender what he’s done well for the majority of his life, especially when the offense still struggled without him as he was labeled public enemy No. 1. But if McIlwain is frustrated with the change in his role or the time he’s having with the football program, he certainly doesn’t show it.

McIlwain has expressed both excitement and optimism about his new position and place within the program. His success in baseball is marginally better than his football performance to date, but that doesn’t mean his potential on the gridiron has gone down the drain. Not many ball carriers can make Oregon’s Troy Dye or Arizona’s Colin Schooler whiff on would-be tackles, but McIlwain did just that early on in 2018.

The list of former quarterbacks who moved to a wideout position has some pretty popular names: Terrelle Pryor, Antwaan Randle El and Julian Edelman, just to name a few. Like the former quarterbacks who have gone on to have successful careers as receivers and runners, McIlwain is a gifted player who has a shot to make a difference in all facets of strategy.

With Laird, Kanawai Noa and Vic Wharton III departing from the program, McIlwain doesn’t just have a role in Baldwin’s plans for next fall — he has an important one.

One area in which McIlwain has the ability to make a huge impact? Goal line or short yardage situations — just ask the 2018 BYU defense. Under a national spotlight, McIlwain led the Bears in rushing yards and attempts, combining with Garbers for a sluggish but effective performance that perhaps gave false hope for a two-quarterback system.

The ship carrying the 2018 Cal offense has since sailed. But that doesn’t mean McIlwain can’t be part of the solution.

You won’t see a guy who takes every snap from under center as we witnessed in a few games last season. But you will see an impactful player who can replicate the powerful running style of Colin Kaepernick and the elusiveness of fellow two-sport star Kyler Murray. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll continue to hear from a guy who seemed to take every critique and every mistake with one of the most mature mindsets I’ve ever seen.

In a day and age when losing playing time or attention can trigger selfish behavior and/or a subsequent transfer à la Kelly Bryant, McIlwain isn’t just accepting his “demotion.” In fact, he’s embraced it and the opportunities that come with it, accentuated by a strong belief that this change will give him the best shot to display his top strength of running laterally and downhill with the rock.

At this moment, McIlwain is a far cry from Kaepernick or Murray. But he certainly deserves a chance to show how hungry he is to win both games and fans back on his side this coming fall. Turnovers aside, he hasn’t lost the “explosiveness” Wilcox identified, and when utilized in the right situation, has a ceiling as high as anybody on Cal’s current offensive depth chart.

Brandon McIlwain is hungry, folks, for more than just a good IB’s cheesesteak. The Bears need the kid from Philly just as much as he needs them, and he’s ready to roll.

Josh Yuen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.