South Carolina’s football coach and quarterback aren’t ready to talk about the Gamecocks juniors and the NFL, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early for USC fans to start to wonder about it.
The Gamecocks have five juniors, including quarterback Jake Bentley, who could be NFL Draft picks if they leave college a year early. Bentley said this week that he hasn’t submitted paperwork to the NFL for early evaluation, a practice that has become commonplace around college football and is encouraged by many college coaches.
“I don’t know (if I will or not),” Bentley. “I’m just trying to beat Akron right now. There is still a lot that I personally and we as a team haven’t accomplished yet.”
Head coach Will Muschamp hasn’t talked to Bentley or any of his potentially draftable juniors about their plans and won’t until the regular season is complete, he said.
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“We play Akron on Saturday,” Muschamp said. “That’s what we’re worried about right now.”
The Gamecocks (6-5) take on Akron (4-7) on Saturday in Williams-Brice Stadium at noon. Until Muschamp or the players are ready to talk about it, the rest of us can speculate about it so here are the four juniors with the greatest pro potential at the moment and our opinion of the likelihood they make an early leap to the NFL.
Center Donell Stanley (85 percent)
Stanley could be a senior this season but reclassified during the offseason after receiving a medical redshirt exemption from the NCAA. The 6-foot-3, 315-pound Floydale native has started 24 games in his career, including every game this year at center. Stanley said last week that he hasn’t made a final decision, but he showed his hand to some degree by participating in Senior Day ceremonies before the Chattanooga game.
Defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw (75 percent)
The 6-foot-6, 305-pound Charleston native hasn’t had the kind of statistically dominant season that South Carolina fans hoped he might have, but he’s still got nine tackles-for-loss and 3.5 sacks. And he’s still 6-foot-6, weighs 305 pounds and has the type of athleticism that will impress at the NFL Combine. The premium placed on explosive interior defensive linemen might make an early jump too temping for Kinlaw to pass on.
Wide receiver Bryan Edwards (35 percent)
Edwards is the only one of these five players who pops up on any of the early draft prospects rankings. He’s considered the eighth-best wide receiver prospect in the country by CBSSports.com. Teammate Deebo Samuel, a senior, is fifth. NFL scouts who have come through Columbia to see Samuel couldn’t help but see that Edwards is 6-foot-3, 220 pounds and averaging 14.9 yards per catch this season. He’s a pro. It’s just a matter of when.
Quarterback Jake Bentley (20 percent)
Bentley is on the hottest streak of his collegiate career. He’s thrown 14 touchdowns and two interceptions in his last four games, and he’s coming off a 510-yard, five-touchdown performance against the second-ranked defense in the country. At 6-foot-4, 224 pounds, he’s got the prototypical size for a pro quarterback. There might have been a time he was thinking about an early jump, but a slow start to the season probably convinced him that one more year would serve USC and his long-term pro potential better.
Middle linebacker T.J. Brunson (10 percent)
The Gamecocks’ leading tackler (88 stops) is 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, but he’d have a tough time standing out in a talented group of inside linebacker prospects this year.