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