BERKELEY -- Brandon McIlwain received his first college football scholarship three days before his 15th birthday. He was named the Pennsylvania Gatorade Player of the Year as a high school senior and was seen as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country.
McIlwain was unlike most top prep athletes, though. He didn't shine in just one sport: He shined in two. And when we say shine, we mean it. McIlwain also was an All-American outfielder in high school and was invited to the Under Armour All-American baseball game.
While most young star athletes turn their focus to one sport by the time they reach college recruitment, McIlwain made it known he wasn't like everyone else.
"I really didn't have a first love," McIlwain told NBC Sports Bay Area before a recent practice at Evans Diamond. "Scholarships in football came first, but I always knew I wanted to play baseball too. It was kind of always a part of my decision making so I could come to college and let both of those sports play themselves out and see where I would want to continue on and have a career."
But McIlwain's journey took a detour from his preternatural stardom. It has brought him to two colleges and now, one fewer sport.
He began his college career in 2016 at South Carolina as a dual-sport athlete before transferring to Cal in May 2017.
Upon joining the Cal football team, it became clear that McIlwain's future is on the diamond, not the gridiron. He played 10 games on the football field as a sophomore in 2018, where he totaled 1,166 yards of total offense, six touchdowns (two passing, four rushing) and eight interceptions. Despite missing the fall, McIlwain was named Cal's starting center fielder for the 2019 season, where he hit .258 in 62 at bats before a broken foot in April sidelined him for the rest of the season.
Though he played only 20 games last season, the Miami Marlins selected McIlwain in the 26th round of the 2019 MLB Draft. Soon after, he made two crucial life decisions: He was returning for his redshirt junior season on the baseball team, and he wouldn't be returning to the football program.
From gridiron to baseball diamond
(Brandon McIlwain passed for 763 yards and rushed for another 403 in 2018. Photo via Casey Sapio/USATSI)
For the first time in his life, McIlwain was able to spend an entire fall with his baseball team before the season begins in the spring. He couldn't be happier with his decision ahead of Friday's season opener at Long Beach State.
"It's amazing that now I'm out here and playing baseball," McIlwain said. "The experience that I had with this team last year ... being back with a group that really likes to compete and have a good time, honestly, that was huge for me. This is a place I felt I was gonna get better, I was going to compete for the postseason and it's just a place I love playing."
Just because his playing days on the football field are behind him, McIlwain still is a quarterback at heart and will continue to have a QB's mindset on the baseball field. In center field, he serves as the eyes of the defense and will make his voice be heard, just like a quarterback calling the offense.
"I like to be loud, be encouraging," McIlwain said. "Football's a little different than baseball, and you can hear a lot more in baseball. The pitcher can hear you and in football, sometimes guys all the way on the sidelines can't quite hear you. In baseball, the pitcher can hear you, the batter can hear you a little bit.
"It's really fun to be able to hype up your guys and to bring that kind of energy in another way."
McIlwain only has 30 games under his belt as a college baseball player, dating back to 2016. That's a big difference compared to Golden Bears teammate Darren Baker's 95 games the last two years. But coach Mike Neu sees similarities in the two players.
"I think it’s similar to Baker in a different way," Neu said. "He’s a leader with his experience. He’s been the quarterback for the football team at Cal. He’s gotten the opportunity to play on a big stage and be in that environment, and that translates to baseball. He can come out here, he can be a leader, he’s gotten more comfortable being out here full time.
"He just brings those natural leadership skills with him from football and it’s been great to have him for a full season."
McIlwain's football skills translate to the baseball field in other ways, too. When watching Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes, you can see how his baseball background helps him make throws from unique angles.
For McIlwain, it's all about anticipation. He believes his experience reading opposing defenses helps with guessing pitch sequences, and has taken his experiences in the QB room to studying film on his swing and pitchers as well.
Untapped baseball potential
(The Miami Marlins selected Brandon McIlwain in the 26th round of the 2019 MLB Draft. Photo via Rob Edwards/KLC Fotos)
At 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, McIlwain has a rare combination of size and speed. With more experience, those raw skills could have him racing up prospect rankings ahead of this June's draft.
"He just really has the tools to excel here," Neu said. "I just expect him to continue to do that this year and probably the biggest upside will come at the next level when he has a chance to play every day for the first time, and that’s why he got drafted last year, even with only playing a handful of games.
"Everyone sees that, it’s exciting."
As dual-threat quarterbacks look to prove they're more than just athletes on the football field, McIlwain is out to show he can be a star on the baseball field now that he's focused on one single sport. If he puts all of his tools together, evaluators are sure to agree this spring.
And the Golden Bears are sure to benefit from those skills before he hears his name called again in the draft.
"My goal is just to be consistent and really to just grow as a baseball player," McIlwain said. "I want to show that I'm not just an athlete playing baseball, that's it's something that I can really focus on and put my time in and dedicate myself to so that I can perfect my craft."