South Carolina will play 12 regular season football games this season. Assuming they are all regulation affairs, that’s 720 minutes of action, and for 99 percent of that time Gamecocks sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley’s mind will be whirring with plays and possibilities, the raucous crowds hovering over him dulled to a dim roar in his ears, but there are exceptions – 3.3 per game specifically in the last seven games of the 2016 season.
Those are the moments when Bentley throws a deep pass… the long ball… the bomb.
“You throw it deep and you hear the whole crowd kind of go…,” Bentley says, inhaling deeply, “take that big deep breath in.”
South Carolina fans will hear that gasp plenty this fall if history is any guide. Bentley is the SEC’s best returning deep-ball passer based on completion percentage, according to research done by Pro Football Focus, which tracks advanced statistics in professional and college football.
Last year, Bentley had an adjusted completion percentage of 58.6 percent on deep passes, which are defined as any throw that travels more than 20 yards in the air. His completion rate was 10 percent better than second-place Austin Allen of Arkansas.
The Gamecocks coaching staff defines deep passes with the same threshold, and what it calls “explosive plays” are one of the key philosophies in offensive coordinator Kurt Roper’s system. In seven starts last year, Bentley completed 23 such passes, the two longest a pair of 47-yarders, one to Deebo Samuel against UMass and another to Hayden Hurst against Florida.
The plays eat up not just a big chunk of field position but also a big chunk of a defense’s confidence.
“It’s like when Steph Curry pulls up from almost midcourt and drains a three,” former South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia said. “It’s kind of a dagger.”
For Garcia, a self-described “gunslinger,” the pass has the perfect amount of panache – high risk and high reward. The image of the attempt is “just rear back and throw it,” but in truth it’s a much more technical throw than that.
For technical guidance, another former USC quarterback is the best source. Perry Orth is the anti-gunslinger who went from walk-on to starter and now coaches youth quarterbacks around the state with his business QB1 Athletics.
“A lot of velocity throwing the football, especially down the field, comes from using the inside part of your back leg and pushing off your back leg, getting that torque on your throw,” Orth said. “When you teach a kid to throw the football, you teach him to throw behind his front leg so when he puts his front foot in the ground and pushes off his back leg, that torque of your body is what generates velocity. Then all you’re doing is putting it up in the air.”
He can go on like that.
“You have your guys who can turn and launch that thing 65 yards because they are naturally gifted and strong people but for the average kid, the average quarterback, they need to be using their entire body to throw the football,” Orth said. “That’s not throwing it like a grenade, that’s still keeping the same fundamentals as if you were throwing a 10-yard curl. Now you are just putting more air under the football and using your back leg more to explode out of your throw.”
There are more coaching points, such as a slight upward tilt on the front shoulder, a step directly toward the target and getting the proper loft on the football.
“What we were taught, by both Roper and (former head coach Steve) Spurrier, was you took a three-step drop, you held your eyes on the free safety and when you hitched up and gathered to throw, you found your receiver, got the ball out in front of him, got air on it so he can adjust and then just reps, reps, reps and reps,” Orth said.
That means lots of time on the practice field with your receivers, throwing the long ball again and again and again – enough that it becomes second nature.
“You kind of just go back to all the training you have done, all the offseason and summer training and you know where he’s going to be,” Bentley said. “I feel like sometimes with Bryan (Edwards) and Deebo (Samuel), I could just close my eyes and throw it and I know exactly where they would be. I just let it fly and hope they go get it.”
That was especially true for Garcia, who had wide receiver Alshon Jeffery on the outside, one of the best deep ball catchers in school history.
“Anytime you see Alshon running one on one, it’s almost easy – throw him a jump ball,” Garcia said.
It’s not as natural for everybody, which is why the practice time is so necessary. The margin for error is slim on a play where the receiver often runs 20 yards from the time of the release to the time of the catch.
“People think the long ball is just a hoist and heave throw, but it’s actually a timing throw like you’re throwing a 10-yard in or a curl,” Orth said. “Those are all timing throws.”
The Gamecocks have a vertical red line painted halfway between the numbers and the sideline down both sides of their practice fields. That’s where receivers are instructed to be at the time of the throw on a deep pass.
“You want to throw him wide to keep him away from the safety but also the receiver is giving you room to miss outside,” Orth said. “If you don’t throw it perfectly right out in front of him, he’s giving you leverage to miss a little bit wider so the receiver can fall off away from the defensive back to catch it.”
South Carolina’s quarterbacks have been coached since the days of Spurrier that “If he’s even, he’s leavin’.” That means if the wide receiver is at the same level as a backpedaling defensive back, he’ll be open by the time the ball arrives. That’s when the quarterback lets the ball go and becomes a spectator like everyone else.
“I throw it, and that’s all I can do,” Bentley said. “If he catches it, I will be cheering just as loud on the inside as the fans do. If we drop a touchdown or I overthrow it, I do that big sigh like everyone else. It’s kind of the only time where I can’t control it anymore. I really don’t hear the crowd the rest of the time.”
Bentley does not credit his long-ball accuracy with a powerful throwing arm.
“People can throw it a lot farther than me,” he said.
No one in the SEC throws it better, though.
Jake Bentley’s Favorites
Getting to know the Gamecocks’ sophomore QB, off the field:
Food: Fried chicken
Movie: Remember the Titans
Hobby: Video games
Video Game: UFC
TV Show: Walking Dead
Non-football sport: Basketball
Singer: “I kind of listen to everything.”
Sibling: “I’m going to go with my little sister (Emily). Every time she sees me, she gives me a big hug. She’s definitely the sweetest.”
Class: “Biology. Got to dissect a rat. That was a pretty cool deal.”
Coach on USC staff: “Coach (Pat) Washington is a pretty cool coach, always smooth, always chill, he’s a pretty cool guy to talk to and just a great guy overall.”
Superstition: None. “I just go play.”