COLUMBIA -- South Carolina has 85 scholarship players on the football team and none — outside of just one — has ever lined up against Alabama.
The lone player is Tavien Feaster, who was on a Clemson team that played and beat the Tide in last year’s national title game. In the game, Feaster had a front-row seat watching a true freshman in Trevor Lawrence carve up a really good Alabama defense.
Saturday, the Gamecocks are starting their own true freshman in Ryan Hilinski, in his second-ever start, against the Tide. Feaster thinks he has the mental makeup to be unfazed by the moment.
“I think he’ll be good. He’s a pretty chill guy, calm guy,” Feaster said. “He studies and works hard. I think it’ll be good for him and he’ll have a good game.”
Feaster chose not to really compare the two freshmen quarterbacks he’s now played with, saying instead both guys are good but different players.
Lawrence was a little more seasoned entering last year’s game against Alabama, having 10 starts under his belt before the title game. Hilinski has just one, with that being against an FCS opponent.
It’s fair to say this is by far the biggest stage Hilinski, who will turn 19 in October, has ever played on with a perennial powerhouse coming to Williams-Brice for a SEC game on CBS three games into his college career.
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For Hilinski, it could be easy to be swept up thinking about it, but he has advice from a few more veteran players on the roster.
“I just tell him it’s a football game,” Feaster said. “It’s just football; relax and play your game. Be you.”
Hilinski passed every test thrown at him against the Bucs, completing 80% of his passes for over 280 yards and three total touchdowns, including a 60-yard dime to Bryan Edwards.
Entering this week, nothing changes in his or the team’s preparation despite the No. 2 team in the country coming to town.
Head coach Will Muschamp said he thinks Hilinski is ready to handle this kind of moment and says it’ll be imperative for him to get help from his skill players.
"No different than last week and obviously the opponent is much different but play well around him. We have to obviously protect the passer. Let's create something in the run game,” he said. “Let's catch the ball down the field. Defensively, let's gain some field position, some momentum in the game, do a great job on special teams controlling the vertical field position. All of those things are all 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."
In his first career start, albeit against an FCS opponent, Hilinski looked as if he weren’t afraid of the moment; it could have been really easy to come out jittery, but he looked like whatever tension he had it was hidden well.
Time will tell if he remains the same calm, cool and collected guy his teammates saw last week and in practice, but they won’t be surprised to see a version of Hilinski they’ve seen all offseason and into the year.
“I mean, obviously we won’t see until game time comes,” Bryan Edwards said. “I think he’s a mature kid and I think he’ll do a good job handling that.”