Last week, South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley completed one of the most successful passing seasons in Gamecocks history.
Bentley’s 2,876 yards were the sixth-most in school history. His 21 touchdowns rank fourth in school history, and his 63.2 completion percentage ranks eighth in school history.
Of course, nothing about Bentley’s collegiate career has been done the traditional way so he stretched his first full collegiate year over two seasons. The Gamecocks sophomore quarterback, who skipped his senior season of high school football to enroll at USC, took over the starting job at this point during his freshman season, taking the reins after the sixth game of the year and starting the final seven games of the season. His six starts this year thus complete his first full season.
“I’m glad he’s our quarterback,” Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp said. “Our guys rally around him. There are a lot of intangible things that he touches within our organization that makes him a special player.”
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Last season, Bentley completed 65.7 percent of his passes for 1,420 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions. This season, he has a 60.6 completion percentage, 1,456 yards, 12 touchdowns and four interceptions.
The numbers are similar, but the feeling is much different than a year ago, said Bentley, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound sophomore.
“I just feel more knowledgeable, everything from protection schemes to defensive coverages, just going out there with more knowledge,” he said. “I feel like last year I was just trying to know our plays, what we were doing on offense. This year, I’m just really feeling more confident with what the defense is showing us.”
Bentley was 17-of-26 for 201 yards and two touchdowns in his first collegiate game, which came in a 34-28 win against UMass last October. His breakout game came the next week, when he was 15-of-20 for 167 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in a 24-21 win over then-No. 18 Tennessee.
The Volunteers (3-2, 0-2 SEC) have come back around on the schedule this week as the Gamecocks (4-2, 2-2 SEC) go to Knoxville, Tenn., to play in Neyland Stadium in a 12 p.m. game on Saturday.
“It wasn’t just me that game. A lot of guys made some big plays for us but that definitely was a big win,” Bentley said. “If anything that game gave me some confidence knowing I didn’t skip a year (of high school) for no reason. That was a big win for us, but that was last year. We have another Tennessee team that is different from last year and we have to go execute well.”
Bentley’s personality has changed little since he took over the starting job, his teammates say.
“He’s always been a vocal dude, a very hype dude. I just love his approach because he loves the game,” linebacker Skai Moore said. “He’s picked up a lot of things in the game. He’s very intelligent. He’s focused on his pre-snap reads a lot more from what I see.”
That knowledge and experience has allowed South Carolina’s offense to be more versatile this year than it was a year ago when Bentley was still trying to learn the system.
“Experience is really important especially at this level we play, there are guys that are good and very talented so having that experience and having that coaching, I feel like he’s made some big strides,” sophomore running back A.J. Turner said.
Inserting Bentley into the lineup in the middle of last season wasn’t an easy decision, Muschamp said.
“It was tough, didn’t know if it was the right decision,” he said. “I didn’t want to put him in a situation where he wasn’t successful. You worry about (that) from a confidence standpoint. It’s delicate at that position.”
It couldn’t have gone much better, though.
“He has total command of what we do,” Muschamp said. “Obviously, physically the maturation is easy to see but just overall command of the offense, leader of our team, understanding the confidence and belief that our players have in him. It’s gone very well.”