Game­cocks rel­ish Bent­ley at wheel

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - TOM MUR­PHY

HOOVER, Ala. — South Carolina was strug­gling at 2-4 last sea­son head­ing into its Oct. 14 open date and firstyear Coach Will Muschamp needed to shake things up.

The Game­cocks had posted slen­der vic­to­ries over Van­der­bilt and

East Carolina and losses to Mis­sis­sippi State, Ken­tucky, Texas A&M and Ge­or­gia. They were av­er­ag­ing 14 points per game and had not scored more than 20 points in a game when Muschamp elected to roll the dice.

He tabbed 18-year-old quar­ter­back Jake Bent­ley, who would have been a se­nior at Opelika (Ala.) High School if he hadn’t grad­u­ated a year early, to take over start­ing du­ties from Perry Orth.

Bent­ley’s pres­ence put a charge into the of­fense. The Game­cocks won three games in

a row over Mas­sachusetts, Ten­nessee and Mis­souri, av­er­ag­ing 33 points per game as they turned their sea­son around. South Carolina wound up in the Birm­ing­ham Bowl, where it lost 46-39 to South Florida in over­time.

Bent­ley, who went 4-3 as the starter, com­pleted 125 of 190 passes (65.8), the high­est ca­reer per­cent­age at South Carolina, for 1,420 yards, with 9 touch­downs and 4 in­ter­cep­tions.

“I was go­ing to red­shirt Jake,” Muschamp said. “But I saw a guy go from August to Septem­ber and October and he con­tin­ued to im­prove his skill set.

“When he came in, he brought us a spark … and to see him go through the off­sea­son pro­gram into spring ball and now in the summer, he un­der­stands how to be a quar­ter­back. And that’s what ex­cites me.”

Bent­ley, a 6-3, 223-pounder, said he was pre­par­ing ev­ery week as if he would play even though he was tar­geted to red­shirt the first six games.

“It wasn’t that much of a tran­si­tion to ac­tu­ally get out there, but it was crazy when it started, win­ning those three games,” Bent­ley said.

“I just took it in stride and tried to do my best and put it all out there on the field.”

South Carolina tight end Hay­den Hurst, who played three-plus sea­sons in the Pitts­burgh Pi­rates or­ga­ni­za­tion be­fore en­rolling in col­lege, said Bent­ley had been a quiet third-teamer be­fore get­ting the call to run with the ones.

“When coach named him the starter it was like Jake flipped a switch and said, ‘Ok, this is my team,’” Hurst said.

“Go­ing through the things he’s gone through, I couldn’t even fathom do­ing that when I was 18 or 19. The kid is so im­pres­sive the way that he car­ries him­self. When he talks and we’re hud­dled around him, 101 guys are silent and they’re lis­ten­ing. That’s pretty im­pres­sive for a guy his age.”

Deebo Sa­muel, the team leader with 59 catches for 783 yards last sea­son, said Bent­ley’s strong arm and poise are rare qual­i­ties.

“He’s smart, he knows the game of foot­ball and he’s also a great leader,” Sa­muel said.

Bent­ley, now 19, be­came one of the youngest play­ers to ever at­tend SEC me­dia days last week af­ter he served as a coun­selor at the Man­ning Pass­ing Academy.

He said the quick rise up the depth chart last year has not gone to his head.

“My coaches and team­mates do a great job with that,” Bent­ley said. “They re­ally keep me grounded. … It would be a dis­ser­vice to me if I didn’t work hard for them.

Bent­ley comes from a fam­ily with a deep foot­ball back­ground. His fa­ther Bobby is South Carolina’s run­ning backs coach. His brother Schuler played quar­ter­back at Old Do­min­ion and Mur­ray State and his step­brother Chas Dodd was a quar­ter­back at Rut­gers.

Sa­muel and Bent­ley shared team MVP hon­ors last year.

“That will tell you some­thing about a guy that played half the sea­son, should have been a high school se­nior, and his team­mates are vot­ing him co-MVP,” Muschamp said.

The Game­cocks, who tied for fifth in the SEC East last year at 3-5, are viewed as on the rise by SEC me­dia, who picked them to fin­ish fourth in the di­vi­sion last week.

Bent­ley is sur­rounded by plenty of veter­ans on of­fense, in­clud­ing four re­turn­ing starters on the front — cen­ter Alan Knott, guard Cory Helms and tack­les Zack Bai­ley and Ma­lik Young — receivers Sa­muel and Bryan Ed­wards, tight ends Hurst and K.C. Crosby and tail­back Rico Dow­dle, a 764-yard rusher.

De­fen­sively, there are more is­sues to re­solve de­spite hav­ing six re­turn­ing starters — all se­niors — led by de­fen­sive backs JaMar­cus King, Chris Lam­mons and D.J. Smith.

“De­fen­sively … we have a lot of un­knowns,” Muschamp said. “We’ve got some ques­tions that need to be an­swered.

“Our 11th prac­tice is go­ing to be a scrim­mage and that’s go­ing to be D-Day for a lot of these young guys. We need to make a de­ci­sion on … who is go­ing to be play­ing and what they can han­dle.”

The Game­cocks open in Char­lotte, N.C., at Bank of Amer­ica Sta­dium against North Carolina State be­fore jump­ing into SEC play at Mis­souri and against Ken­tucky. Fol­low­ing a non-con­fer­ence game against Louisiana Tech, the Game­cocks play per­ma­nent crossover foe Texas A&M on the road, then Arkansas at home from the SEC West.

“Bret’s done a great job at Wis­con­sin and now Arkansas,” Muschamp said of Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema. “It’s a dif­fer­ent ball of wax as far as play­ing those guys as far as some of the teams we see in the East.

“We may get some tra­di­tional two-back run game. Dan [Enos] does a fan­tas­tic job of that. They’ve gone strictly three down on de­fense. It is some­thing we need to pre­pare for on the eastern side.”

AP/PETER MOR­RI­SON

Jor­dan Spieth missed five fair­ways over the first seven holes, but he re­bounded to fin­ish with a 5-un­der 65 to grab a share of the lead with Brooks Koepka and Matt Kuchar af­ter the open­ing round of the Bri­tish Open on Thurs­day at Royal Birk­dale Golf Course in Southport, Eng­land.

AP/BUTCH DILL

South Carolina coach Will Muschamp has 16 starters back this sea­son, in­clud­ing 10 on of­fense, for a Game­cocks team that went 6-7 and fin­ished in a tie for fifth in the SEC East in 2016.

Bent­ley

AP/SEAN RAYFORD

pro­vided the Game­cocks with a big boost as a fresh­man last sea­son with 1,420 yards pass­ing and 9 touch­downs in 7 games.

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