A little tired and a lot proud, Brian Blackmon sat in Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday afternoon with a cell phone that wouldn’t stop dinging. The mayor of Opelika, Ala., texted. The superintendent of the Lee County school system texted. It seemed like everybody Blackmon knew was calling or texting with the same message.
“I think I heard from just about everybody in our community about how proud they are of Jake and how he continues to represent our community well,” Blackmon said. “Everybody is really, really proud of him.”
Jake Bentley was supposed to be Blackmon’s starting quarterback this year at Opelika High School. Instead, Blackmon and his family had to leave Pelham, Ala., after the Opelika-Pelham game last Friday night, stop east of Atlanta and then finish the trip to Columbia on Saturday morning to watch Bentley make his collegiate debut as South Carolina’s starting quarterback against UMass.
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It was the end point of the very unconventional route Bentley took from high school star to college starter, a journey that started when South Carolina’s new head football coach Will Muschamp hired Jake Bentley’s father Bobby to be the Gamecocks running backs coach.
That happened in December. In March, Jake Bentley made a verbal commitment to play for South Carolina after taking unofficial recruiting visits to Stanford, Alabama, Florida State, Georgia and Auburn. Muschamp started making plans for Bentley, then a high school junior, to sign with South Carolina in February of 2017. A month later, Bobby Bentley walked into his boss’s office.
“He said, ‘Have you ever been a part of a situation where it’s possible a kid could graduate early and come to school?’” Muschamp remembers.
Muschamp had not. He’d only heard of it happening once before in college football, when Louisiana prep legend John David Booty skipped his final season to sign with Southern Cal a year early in 2003.
Bobby Bentley explained to Muschamp that Jake didn’t want to spend his final year of high school with a different team and was considering finishing his high school career in Opelika while living with Blackmon.
“Bobby and Paulette didn’t want Jake to be in Alabama, they wanted him to be here and that’s really how the conversation all started,” Muschamp said. “They are a very close knit family, and they wanted to be together, and it happened that it worked out that way.”
Muschamp was in favor of the move, he told Bobby.
“Anytime you can add a good football player to your roster, you want to do it,” Muschamp said.
The only possible stumbling block was the state of Alabama’s requirement that a student have 26 credits to receive a high school diploma. Jake Bentley had 23 credits at the time. The family found the solution in a familiar place – Byrnes High School.
Before joining Auburn’s coaching staff as an offensive analyst, Bobby Bentley was a Byrnes legend. He was 119-54 in two stints as the school’s head coach and won four consecutive state championships there from 2002-2005.
The state of South Carolina requires only 24 credits for a high school diploma, and Jake Bentley was able to earn his 24th credit and a Byrnes High School diploma with an online computer science course taken at the school this summer.
“He’d come to campus in our computer lab and do the work,” Byrnes athletic director Tony Gillespie said.
Gillespie coached Bentley when the quarterback was starting for Byrnes freshman team as an eighth grader. The next year, Bentley moved up to varsity, where he backed up his brother Shuler for the Rebels before the family moved to Alabama.
“You knew Jake was going to be a special player as an eighth grader,” Gillespie said. “Jake’s one of those kids who’s a great human being. I don’t have a daughter, but he’s one of those that if you have a daughter that’s who you want your daughter to date. He’s just a super, super kid.”
Neither Jake Bentley nor his father Bobby were available to comment for this story. Muschamp does not allow his true freshman players to speak to the media, and none of the team’s assistant coaches have spoken to the media since the season started.
At Opelika, Jake Bentley backed up a senior starter during his sophomore year and took over the starting job as a junior, throwing for 2,834 yards, 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions. At the time, Blackmon didn’t know that would be his only full season with Bentley, but he doesn’t begrudge the family their choice.
“We wanted what was best for Jake all along,” Blackmon said. “Our commitment is first to the kid and then to the player. So when all of this stuff went down we went through all the best- and worst-case scenarios for him and just let him and his family make that decision. I knew physically and mentally he was ready. The big question is you’re giving up an entire senior year which I think is a pretty special year for a kid. Most all of us remember that senior year. You just have to think it through. I think it was the right decision for him.”
It looked like it last week against the Minutemen. Bentley passed for 201 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in a 34-28 win.
“He is unlike anybody I have ever coached,” Blackmon said. “His football IQ is great. I think he’s got an NFL caliber arm. There’s not a throw that he can’t make, but I think the best thing about Jake is he just kind of has that ‘It’ factor. He’s a great leader. He’s an emotional guy. I think everybody in Columbia saw Saturday that kid just loves playing the game. He loves competing. It doesn’t matter to him what the game is. He just loves to compete.”
Bentley will get his first taste of SEC competition on Saturday when he starts against No. 18 Tennessee at 7:15 p.m. in Williams-Brice Stadium. Meanwhile, Opelika has managed OK without him. The Bulldogs finished the regular season 9-1 and won their region for the third straight season.
“We were out a great quarterback, but we’ve done pretty good,” Blackmon said. “We have managed to keep it going, but we certainly miss having Jake around.”
Jake Bentley’s passing numbers in his first start last week against UMass: