South Carolina sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley spoke to the media Wednesday for the first time since joining the team. He debuted in midseason form, just like he did last season when he took the starting job in game 7 and led South Carolina to four wins in its final six regular-season games and a bowl appearance.
“I’m thinking to stay here for four years right now. I want to win a national championship, and however long that takes I’m going to do it,” Bentley said Wednesday. “The young talent that we have is definitely ready to win a national championship, win an SEC championship. We are willing to do whatever it takes.”
Bold words from the leader of a team coming off a 6-7 season, but a better rallying cry than, say, “Eight (wins) is enough.”
The Gamecocks open spring practice Saturday and held a kickoff media event Wednesday, which is why Bentley was in the spotlight. Through his first year with the team, he was not allowed by coach Will Muschamp to speak to the media.
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Bentley started seven games in 2016, completing 65.8 percent of his passes for 1,420 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions. Sophomore Brandon McIlwain still is “battling to be our starter” although he’ll spend spring practice with the baseball team, Muschamp said, and junior Michael Scarnecchia will take the second-team snaps this spring, but neither will threaten Bentley’s hold on the job.
The former Opelika (Ala.) High School star and son of South Carolina running backs coach Bobby Bentley showed the same kind of precocious maturity in front of dozens of microphones Wednesday that he showed in front of almost as many pass rushers last season.
“Now I feel like I definitely have control of the offense, and I’m able to really talk to the guys and try to fix things that they mess up,” Bentley said. “I’m more comfortable with the whole team and the whole process and knowing where we want to go offensively.”
Bentley has not been shy about organizing the offense during the offseason, running back A.J. Turner said.
“He’s always calling and texting in a group chat, ‘Come on, let’s throw; let’s do seven-on-seven,’ ” Turner said. “Just little stuff like that shows his leadership in a lot of different ways.”
Bentley’s leadership is not something that worries Muschamp despite his quarterback’s youth.
“Work is not going to be an issue for Jake,” Muschamp said. “He’s going to work. That’s one of the great talents he has. The game is going to continue to slow down for a guy like him, but I’m never concerned about his work ethic and how he’s going to positively affect the guys around him. That’s what’s expected and something I know will happen with him.”
The biggest adjustment for Bentley in his first season was learning the team’s protection schemes. He took a beating during his seven games and some of it was his own fault.
“Some of the sacks were on me,” he said. “Just knowing who’s blocked and knowing what some of our fixes are in protection is one of the biggest things. It’s not all on the offensive line, but me and the offensive line both got better this offseason.”
A crash course on blocking schemes with graduate assistant Matthew Symmes between the end of the regular season and the Birmingham Bowl paid big dividends, Bentley said.
“It definitely did get better each week, and then from our last game to the bowl game it really did slow down,” he said.
Bentley threw for 390 yards and three touchdowns in that game, and he believes he and his offense have that kind of potential every week in 2017.
“We are going to do some different stuff, same basic schemes and identity, but definitely a lot more. We’re all growing together in this offense,” he said. “We are going to have some more wrinkles this year, and hopefully it will have great success.”