College Sports

Hilinski’s next: What history says about freshman QBs facing Nick Saban’s Alabama

How USC is preparing freshman QB Ryan Hilinski to face Alabama

South Carolina football coach Will Muschamp discusses quarterback Ryan Hilinski and the big game ahead against Alabama at Williams-Brice Stadium.
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South Carolina football coach Will Muschamp discusses quarterback Ryan Hilinski and the big game ahead against Alabama at Williams-Brice Stadium.

South Carolina’s Ryan Hilinski could join Johnny Manziel, Trevor Knight, Trevor Lawrence and Wesley Carroll in a very exclusive club on Saturday.

Wesley Carroll?

Since Nick Saban became Alabama’s head coach in 2007, the Crimson Tide has played 19 games against freshman — true or redshirt — starting quarterbacks. The Tide has lost just four of them. One (Manziel) of those QBs is a Heisman Trophy winner, one (Knight) is a Sugar Bowl MVP, one (Lawrence) is a national champion and the other (Carroll) finished his career with Florida International.

Carroll was a rookie at Mississippi State 12 years ago when his nine completions for 100 yards were enough for the Bulldogs as they beat then-No. 21 Alabama, 17-12, in Starkville. The Tide finished 7-6 that season and out of the rankings for the only time in Saban’s tenure.

The 2019 Tide (2-0) enters Columbia this weekend winners of 29 of its last 31. It’s No. 2 in both major polls. It’s a 25.5-point favorite to top the Gamecocks (1-1).

This is what’s facing Hilinski in his second career start. Kickoff is 3:30 p.m. Saturday. The game will air nationally on CBS.

“Ryan’s got a really good mindset,” said USC coach Will Muschamp. “He’s a guy that comes in the building all the time, he works extremely hard, he watches a lot of tape. He’ll have a good mindset going into the game. He’s a very confident young man in his abilities to help us move the ball and score points. And that’s what it’s all about.

“But he’s got a lot of confidence about him in a very positive way.”

Muschamp doesn’t make freshmen available to the media, so there’s no way of truly gauging how Hilinski is preparing for the biggest game of his 18-year-old life.

The Gamecocks did confirm, however, they are watching tape this week of Alabama’s last loss. It came in January as a 19-year-old Lawrence tossed for 347 yards and three touchdowns to lead Clemson to a 44-16 rout of the Tide in the national title game.

“We went out there and executed and got the job done,” said Carolina running back Tavien Feaster, who played then for Clemson.

That was Lawrence’s 11th career start. When Manziel, as a redshirt freshman, led Texas A&M past Alabama in 2012, it was his 10th career start. When Knight, also a redshirt, took Oklahoma to the Sugar Bowl title over Alabama in January 2014, it came in career start No. 5. Carroll did it in his sixth.

Hilinski debuted last week by completing 24 of 30 passes for 282 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He also ran for a score as South Carolina had its way with FCS Charleston Southern, 72-10.

The average stat line for a freshman QB against Saban’s Tide: 15 of 30, 134 yards, 1 TD, 1.7 INTs.

What can the Gamecocks do to help Hilinski?

“No different than last week,” Muschamp said, “and obviously the opponent is much different. Play well around him. We got to obviously protect the passer, let’s create something in the run games, let’s catch the ball down the field. Defensively, let’s get some field position, some momentum in the game. Do a great job on special teams, control the vertical field position.

“So all of those things are the same for every week, to help whether it’s a veteran player or a young player be more successful. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Through two weeks, Alabama has allowed 13 points. It’s giving up an SEC-low 233 yards per game.

“I think he’ll be good,” Feaster said of Hilinski. “He’s a pretty chill guy, calm. He studies, he works hard. So I think it’ll be good for him and I think he’ll have a great game.”

Added senior receiver Bryan Edwards: “Obviously we won’t see it until game time comes, but I think he’s a mature kind and I think he’ll do a good job handling that.”

Freshman QBs vs. Saban-coached Alabama, 2007-present

Record: 4-15

Total numbers: 288 of 567, 2,544 yards, 18 TDs, 33 INTs

Average score: Alabama 35, Opponent 16

Average stat line: 15 of 30, 134 yards, 1 TD, 1.7 INTs

Best performance: Trevor Lawrence, Clemson: 20-32, 347 yards, 3 TDs; 6 rushes, 27 yards (Jan. 7, 2019)

Best performance by an SEC QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: 24-31, 253 yards, 2 TDs; 18 rushes, 92 yards (Nov. 10, 2012)

Worst performance: Drew Little, Georgia State: 4-11, 69 yards, 4 INTs (Nov. 18, 2010)

Worst performance by an SEC QB: Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee: 9-16, 44 yards, INT (Oct. 21, 2017)

NEXT

Who: Alabama at South Carolina

When: 3:30 pm Saturday, Sept. 14

Where: Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia

TV: CBS

Line: Alabama by 25.5

Andrew Ramspacher has been covering college athletics since 2010, serving as The State’s USC men’s basketball beat writer since October 2017. His work has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors, Virginia Press Association and West Virginia Press Association. At a program-listed 5-foot-10, he’s always been destined to write about the game. Not play it.
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