Josh Kendall

Bentley’s early entry quickly turning to elite expectations

It’s not even June, and Jake Bentley already has entered “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” territory for the summer of 2017.

Twelve months ago, Bentley hadn’t committed to play for South Carolina. One month before that, only a handful of people knew it was possible he could skip his senior year of high school and play college football anywhere in 2017. Now Bentley is dominating every spin of college football’s summer news cycle.

In April, SEC Network analyst and former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy said he thinks Bentley is better than Georgia’s five-star rising sophomore Jacob Eason, adding “it isn’t close.”

Earlier this month, South Carolina coach Will Muschamp announced Bentley will be working as a counselor at the prestigious Manning Passing Academy in June. It’s not an invitation that goes to chumps. Previous Manning counselors have included Andrew Luck, Jameis Winston, Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford, all of whom went on to be No. 1 overall selections in the NFL draft.

Last week, Pro Football Focus released data showing Bentley is the SEC’s leading returning passer when throwing deep passes, and that’s not close either. Bentley completed 58.6 percent of his passes that traveled 20 yards or more downfield, which is 10 percent higher than second-place Austin Allen of Arkansas.

It’s enough for the rest of the conference’s quarterbacks to fairly be thinking, “Bentley, Bentley, Bentley,” just as Jan Brady famously bemoaned her sister’s popularity on “The Brady Bunch.”

It’s a stark contrast from last year. Even after he hastily enrolled at South Carolina, where his father Bobby is the Gamecocks running backs coach, Bentley wasn’t the talk of the town. At that point, the Brandon McIlwain hype train was so far down the track that nobody expected Bentley to be anything more than a potentially comfortable fallback position during the 2017 season and perhaps beyond.

Then McIlwain couldn’t keep the job, and Bentley stepped up. Bentley helped to engineer a 24-21 upset of No. 18 Tennessee, and finished his true freshman season with 1,420 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions in seven games. And now we’re here, and nobody can shut up about the former Opelika (Ala.) High School star.

Easing in under the radar worked out so well for Bentley last season that it’s fair to consider how he will respond as the weight of expectations continues to grow. In July, when the college football season is staring everyone in the face, Bentley should be representing the Gamecocks at SEC Media Days, where more than 1,000 media members with some connection to the league will be willing and able to promote him even further afield.

Muschamp isn’t worried the exposure will rattle Bentley.

“He’ll be in the film room and, obviously, continue to progress (this summer),” the Gamecocks coach said. “He’ll be orchestrating our player-run practices, especially on the offensive side of the ball. I think that they’ve already started throwing with the receivers in May, the guys that are on campus. His leadership within the offense and our football team is critical, and I know the respect that his teammates have of him.”

This is all decidedly better than the alternative for Bentley and the Gamecocks. The narrative surrounding Muschamp’s five previous seasons as a head coach has been, “If this guy had a quarterback or an offense, he might be onto something.”

Now, he has a quarterback, and everywhere you look, somebody is ready to tell you all about him.

How Bentley’s numbers add up

A by-the-numbers look at South Carolina sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley:

▪  6: Games he had at least one 30-plus yard completion (out of seven starts).

▪  1st: Rank among starting SEC quarterbacks in adjusted completion percentage on throws of 20-plus yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

▪  1,420: Yards passing this past season as a freshman. He threw for nine touchdowns and four interceptions.

▪  65.8: Completion percentage in 2016, best ever for a USC quarterback for a career and fourth for a single season. He was 125-for-190.

▪  5: True freshman to start at quarterback for the Gamecocks in the SEC era.

▪  1: Win against Tennessee in his first career start against an SEC opponent, completing 15 of 20 passes for 167 yards and two TDs.

▪  2: True freshman USC quarterbacks to win their first three collegiate starts, joining Steve Taneyhill in 1992.

▪  3: USC bowl game records he set in the Birmingham Bowl against USF: passes completed (32), yards passing (390) and total offense (381).

▪  2: FBS players who could have been playing high school football in 2016: Bentley and Kansas safety Mike Lee.

▪  3: Sons of USC running backs coach Bobby Bentley who play or played quarterback in college: Jake at USC, Chas at Rutgers and Shuler at Old Dominion (and now at Murray State).

Compiled by Rick Millians

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