Josh Kendall

Jake Bentley’s place among SEC QBs: Elite player, room for growth — or both?

One former SEC quarterback thinks Jake Bentley will benefit from an offense where he has to think less and can play more instinctively. Another former SEC QB says Bentley is one of “the best pre-snap quarterbacks there is as far as his ability and knowledge.”

Twenty games into the career of South Carolina’s starting quarterback, opinions are mixed on where Bentley fits into a crowded field of Southeastern Conference quarterbacks that includes Jarrett Stidham at Auburn, Drew Lock at Missouri, Nick Fitzgerald at Mississippi State, Jake Fromm at Georgia and Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama.

“I love Jake,” said Jordan Rodgers, a former Vanderbilt quarterback who is now an SEC Network analyst. “Across the country, he might be one of the best pre-snap quarterbacks there is as far as his ability and knowledge of defenses and what to do and how to get his team in the right position. Jake Bentley, more than anybody I’ve been around, has that ‘it’ factor that raises the level of play of the people around him, that grit that you need in late game.

“Is he the most talented arm? No, but he doesn’t need to be because of those other intangibles that you look for.”

Bentley, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior, is 13-7 as South Carolina’s starter. Since taking over the job midway through the 2016 season, he has completed 63.4 percent of his passes for 4,214 yards, 27 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.

“He’s got a lot of talent, sometimes unrealized talent, and sometimes he’s ineffective,” CBS Sports analyst Barrett Sallee said. “I think Jake fits in as a guy who gets the job done, maybe not every single game, and I think that’s a problem, but I think that can be solved with a better offense.”

Bentley’s first 20 starts came under offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kurt Roper, who was fired following the 2017 regular season. Bentley has spent the offseason working under offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon and quarterbacks coach Dan Werner.

“I think Jake Bentley is going to be really well-served by the offense that McClendon is going to install, faster, a little less thinking, fewer options,” said former Alabama quarterback and ESPN analyst Greg McElroy. “He’s going to play more instinctively as opposed to a guy who is trying to analyze every situation.”

McElroy studied Bentley last year in the season-opener against N.C. State and again versus Florida in Week 10 and was startled by the differences.

In the N.C. State game, in which Bentley threw three touchdowns and one interception in a 35-28 win: “He played like a coach’s son, just great decisions, understood what South Carolina needed from him to win the game. It was a real testament to his maturity.”

In the Florida game, in which Bentley threw three interceptions and no touchdowns in a 28-20 win: “The Florida game was the most jaw-dropping to me because that was the antithesis of who Jake Bentley has been. He was careless. He threw the ball in three-on-one coverage multiple times. It was odd. You look at his feet, they are all over the place. He’s got happy feet, he’s leaving the pocket early. He just didn’t trust his progressions. I don’t think he trusted the process of going through those progressions, and that happens. The good thing is he eventually got it rectified and played a little bit better.”

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South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley speaks during the SEC football media day Thursday at the College Football Hall of Fame. Dale Zanine USA TODAY Sports

“He just looked uncomfortable (at times last year), and when you lose a little bit of confidence in what you’re doing and you’re not seeing the field quite as good as you once did, it becomes unsettling, and he tried to make things happen that just didn’t exist,” McElroy said. “There is still a lot of room for growth.”

Bentley finished seventh in the SEC last season in passer rating at 130.7. He was fifth in passing yards at 214.9 yards per game. While he currently sits second in school history in career completion percentage, his 12 interceptions last year were second-most among SEC quarterbacks and his touchdown-to interception ratio (18 to 12) was the worst.

“I like his style of play, I like the way he throws it, I like the way he gives guys a chance to make plays on it,” said former Georgia quarterback and SEC Network analyst D.J. Shockley. “He’s a guy who is not afraid. We have seen guys in the league who hold onto it too much and are hesitant. He’s not the guy who’s hesitant. He’s going to make sure he gets that ball out of his hands and makes some plays with it.”

Sometimes that can lead to problems. Against Georgia, Florida and Clemson last year, Bentley combined for two touchdowns and seven interceptions. First-year quarterbacks coach Dan Werner has worked extensively with Bentley on his footwork this offseason, specifically the positioning and movement of his plant foot.

“It boiled down to cleaning up some stuff footwork-wise and accuracy,” Bentley said.

South Carolina coach Will Muschamp called Bentley “an elite player in our league.”

“I’m glad he’s our quarterback,” Muschamp said. “He’s played extremely well. He’s mature beyond his years. He’s got a great competitive edge. I expect Jake to have a great year.”