The last thing Will Muschamp wants to be talking about headed into the seventh game of the season is who’s going to be his starting quarterback, but there he sat Tuesday at his weekly news conference addressing exactly that.
By this time of the year, the Gamecocks had hoped either senior Perry Orth or freshman Brandon McIlwain would have taken the job as their own and everything would be humming along nicely. Everything, as you have no doubt noticed, is not humming along nicely.
South Carolina (2-4 overall, 1-4 SEC) is last in the nation in scoring and 126th in yards. That’s how a coach ends up considering playing his second true freshman quarterback of the season with half the year already gone.
“We have a good plan heading into Saturday,” Muschamp said Tuesday. “Obviously, we are not going to disclose that until Saturday.”
What Muschamp is not disclosing but what is happening is that the Gamecocks are planning to start true freshman Jake Bentley at quarterback this week against UMass, according to two sources with knowledge of the situation. Several South Carolina players said Tuesday that Bentley’s practice repetitions have increased this week.
Bentley, Orth and McIlwain got equal practice repetitions Tuesday, said running back A.J. Turner, who added that’s a departure from the previous rotation.
“Honestly, I have no idea (who is going to start),” Turner said. “I’m just really putting my faith in the coaches to put us in the best position and put the best players out there for us to win. I have no idea what’s going on with the quarterback situation. Whoever is in, they are in.”
Bentley, 6-foot-3, 223 pounds, was a four-star prospect out of Opelika, Ala., when he made a verbal commitment to South Carolina in March. At the time, he was preparing for his senior year in high school but after his father Bobby was hired as the Gamecocks running backs coach, Bentley determined he could graduate high school a year early and signed with South Carolina in July. Like all of the team’s true freshmen, Bentley has not been allowed to speak to the media this season.
“We are not going to make a change for sake of making a change,” Muschamp said. “That doesn’t make any sense. We are going to make a change if we feel like it’s going to help benefit our football team. Those are the decisions we have to make as a staff.”
Bentley would be South Carolina’s fifth different starting quarterback since the start of 2015 season. Unlike McIlwain, Bentley did not participate in spring practice with the Gamecocks because he was unable to enroll in college in January.
“Regardless of whether it’s Jake Bentley or whoever it is, as a freshman those are always the challenges that you go through. How quickly do those guys adjust? How much do they study their playbook? How well do they catch onto the terminology. All of those things are things that every freshman works through,” Muschamp said. “Perry and Brandon were ahead of Jake after training camp was over. As you continue to work through the season, we are not having the production we need to have offensively and it’s not all on the quarterback, but at each position you constantly evaluate if you make a change is it going to make our football team better.”
Bentley would become the fifth true freshman to start at quarterback for the Gamecocks since 1992. Three of those would have come in the last two years. Two of them would have come in the span of three games.
“You can definitely tell he’s young,” Turner said. “Everybody makes mistakes, but you can definitely tell he’s young.”
Bentley is more of a pure pocket passer than McIlwain. In the preseason practices that were open to the media, he looked like the best thrower on the team, but playing the position takes a lot more than throwing. A football person I trust believes Bentley has the chance to be the best offensive player in the school’s history before his career is complete, but even so, it’s a lot to expect him to turn around a moribund offense in his first career start or even his first season.
He does step into a friendly position for a freshman quarterback. Lots of folks like to point out that Alabama true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts is doing just fine, but Hurts is surrounded by answers at every other position. Bentley, like Orth and McIlwain before him, will have questions at every other position.
It’s important to note that even if the plan is to start Bentley on Tuesday, this is the kind of decision that coaches could get nervous about as the moment of truth draws nearer. So even if the Gamecocks prep Bentley all week to be the starter, if they don’t like what they see or simply rethink their decision, they could go back to Orth, who could be reasonably expected to execute the game plan without much prep work during the week.
At the moment, though, it looks like Bentley will be the guy. He will join Connor Mitch, Lorenzo Nunez, McIlwain and Orth as quarterback starters in the last 19 games. This, of course, is not how anyone would have drawn it up, throwing quarterback after quarterback at the problem and hoping that it goes away.
This, though, is where the Gamecocks are.
Getting the start
A look at the four quarterbacks who have started since the departure of Dylan Thompson at the end of the 2014 season. Jake Bentley could be added to the list on Saturday.
13-19, 165 yards, 0 Int, 1 TD
32-52, 376 yards, 3 Int, 3 TD
200-351, 2590 yards, 11 Int., 12 TD
56-106, 567 yards, 1 Int., 2 TD