Will Muschamp started Jake Bentley at quarterback on Saturday, and then immediately afterward tried to stop the Jake Bentley Hype Train.
“Let’s just take one day at a time,” South Carolina’s coach chuckled when a media member made an allusion to Connor Shaw after the Gamecocks’ 34-28 win over UMass in Williams-Brice Stadium.
Shaw’s the team’s winningest quarterback in history and a member of the Chicago Bears. Bentley has played 60 minutes of college football and beaten one of the worst teams in the FBS.
“We beat UMass,” Muschamp said. “It gets tougher next week.”
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This is lesson South Carolina fans have had a chance to learn. Again. And again.
At one time, Connor Mitch, Lorenzo Nuñez and Brandon McIlwain all were going to be The Answer. Like Bentley, each was a four-star prospect who promised a revitalization of the offense and thereby the program. Like Bentley, each won their collegiate debut against a non-conference opponent.
Now Bentley, like the other three, will learn that it gets tougher, not easier, from here. Certainly, the first step was a good one. The 6-foot-3, 223-pound Bentley was 17 of 26 passing for 201 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, doubling South Carolina’s passing touchdowns for the season. Not bad for a player who looked like he was headed for a redshirt season two weeks ago.
Bentley’s appearance Saturday was a credit both to his development and the struggles at the quarterback position this year. South Carolina (3-4 overall) started McIlwain three games and senior Perry Orth three games through the first half of the season and entered Saturday last in the SEC in scoring (14 ppg).
“We went into the open week and evaluated all positions, and we felt like we needed more production at the position,” Muschamp said. “So the next question you ask yourself is, ‘Is the alternative better than what you’ve got?’ We are not going to make change for the sake of change. That’s not the point. There are some situations on our team right now quite frankly I’d like to change, but we don’t have an option.”
At quarterback, they decided they had an option. Every Sunday during the season, the Gamecocks scrimmage their little-used players for the final hour of an evening practice. Bentley, who skipped his final year of high school to enroll at South Carolina, but did not participate in spring practice with the Gamecocks, made steady progress throughout those sessions.
“He’s just a calm, cool, collected type dude,” junior running back David Williams said. “Whatever the coaches ask him to do, he’s ready to do it. He doesn’t get down. When he found out he was third string after he had a good summer, he just kept his mind straight. Normally, when you see people in that kind of position, it’s, ‘Oh I’m third string, I ain’t ever going to play.’ They don’t go hard at practice, but he kept the same mindset.”
Bentley’s passing acumen was never in doubt. From the moment he stepped on campus, he was the team’s most talented thrower, a fact he demonstrated with beautiful touchdown passes to K.C. Crosby and Bryan Edwards, and several more times on balls that were batted away or dropped. It was all the other parts of the game that Bentley needed to catch up on. Against UMass at least, he appeared to have a handle on all of those. The Gamecocks had few pre-snap penalties and operated their offense at as high a pace as they have all season.
“The quarterback position is all-encompassing from the leadership standpoint and how you positively affect the people around you,” Muschamp said. “There is no question he has some very good qualities to do that.”
Bentley didn’t speak to the media following the game and probably won’t the rest of the season as Muschamp makes first-year freshmen unavailable for interviews. Bentley became the third of his brothers to start at quarterback for a Division I program. Half brother Chas Dodd started at Rutgers and Shuler Bentley has started at Old Dominion. Their father, Bobby Bentley, is South Carolina’s running backs coach, but had no voice in the decision to start Jake, Muschamp said. (The Gamecocks assistant coaches don’t speak to the media during the season, either.)
The decision essentially was made two weeks ago. South Carolina bumped Bentley into the practice rotation with Orth and McIlwain on Tuesday of their off week and continued to split first-team reps equally between the three during Wednesday and Thursday practice. By the end of the Thursday workout, the coaches were convinced Bentley was their guy, Muschamp said, but the players seemed to know the moment they saw Bentley join the rotation.
“We kind of looked over and were like, ‘OK, here we go,’ ” Hurst said.
The question is – where are they going from here? South Carolina plays Tennessee at home on Saturday, and it’s that next step that has been so difficult for Bentley’s predecessors.
Mitch made two starts at South Carolina and is now the quarterback at James Madison. Nuñez made two starts and is now redshirting while transitioning to wide receiver. McIlwain made three starts and is now Bentley’s backup.
Act Two for Bentley awaits.