Calling a person the “best quarterback in the SEC East” is perhaps the faintest praise available in college football at the moment.
It’s the “most honest presidential candidate” of compliments, but there South Carolina freshman Jake Bentley sits, towering over tiny competition three games into his collegiate career. The Duncan native – by way of Opelika, Ala. – is 3-0 after the Gamecocks beat Missouri 31-21 on Saturday in Williams-Brice Stadium.
All the handwringing about what could go wrong by pulling Bentley’s redshirt in the seventh game of the season (my hands are admittedly chapped) has been proven unfounded by Bentley’s play. Through three games, he has completed 73 percent of his passes for 622 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions.
“Jake just brings a confidence to the offense,” sophomore tight end Hayden Hurst said. “We believe we can score from anywhere. We were kind of in a rut a little bit the first half (of the season), and then Jake comes in and sparks the offense. It’s just exciting right now.”
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On Saturday, Bentley was 22 of 28 for a career-high 254 yards and threw two touchdown passes. At every turn, he looked more cagey veteran than confounded freshman.
“He’s very level-headed,” said coach Will Muschamp, who has a better quarterback than he had in four ill-fated years at Florida. “I’m not saying it doesn’t surprise me, but I don’t think the moment is too big. I think he handles the moment very well. He’s very humble. He’s appreciative of his teammates. He’s not a guy who is going to look in the mirror and think it’s about him.”
This is what South Carolina’s coaches hoped for when they inserted Bentley into the starting lineup against UMass on Oct. 22, but Muschamp acknowledged that practice predictions can often turn to game day fiascoes, especially when freshmen are involved.
“You never really know until game day or it’s a live situation,” Muschamp said.
In the interest of the journalistic tradition of telling both sides of the story, this is Bentley’s competition for best in the East:
▪ Florida’s Luke Del Rio, who on Saturday had a quarterback rating of 6.9 in a 31-10 loss to an Arkansas that entered the day 12th in the league in total defense
▪ Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs, who may one day run the nation’s space program, but who no one wants to handle the critical drive of a game
▪ Kentucky’s Stephen Johnson, a backup forced into action by an injury to starter Drew Barker
▪ Missouri’s Drew Lock, a sophomore who threw two interceptions Saturday
▪ Georgia’s Jacob Eason, who’s learning on the job like Bentley, but is making more mistakes
▪ Whoever Vanderbilt’s quarterback is
Bentley’s only real competition for the crown is Eason. There’s a lot of ground to be covered between here and there, but you can almost squint your eyes the right way and see the NFL Draft features on those two rivals as they prepare to be first-round picks in 2020 (or 2019).
Eason had thrown five interceptions in eight games heading into Saturday night’s game against Kentucky. Bentley has yet to turn the ball over.
In fact, the plays he hasn’t made have been more impressive than the plays he has. Twice Saturday, he was content to zip a pass out of bounds rather than take a sack or make an ill-advised throw.
The Gamecocks have not been limited in their offensive planning by Bentley’s youth, Muschamp said. In fact, he’s proven to be very versatile in terms of changing attacks from week to week.
“Jake is a really grounded, humble guy,” Muschamp said. “He’s hard on himself. He’s not a guy you need to sit there and correct and get on.”
Not with the way he’s playing certainly.