If South Carolina’s quarterback competition was a beauty contest, Jake Bentley would be the Gamecocks’ starter on Sept. 1.
The freshman is 6-foot-3, 225 pounds and looks every bit the four-star prospect that he is. He stands two inches taller than senior Perry Orth and three inches taller than fellow freshman Brandon McIlwain – and when he steps into a throw on the practice field, it is something to see, all arc and velocity and accuracy and the promise of touchdowns to be.
Here’s the thing, though. How often in an actual SEC football game does a quarterback make that throw? Feet firmly under him, back straight, time on his side, plenty of room to step up in the pocket, a clear passing lane, the wide receiver where he’s supposed to be and the defender not. Three times on a good day? Maybe once. Maybe not at all.
This is no knock on Bentley. He’ll be South Carolina’s starter one day and maybe an NFL starter one day, too. It is a reminder that quarterback credentials are better judged on who handles the ugly details of game day rather than who makes the prettiest throws on practice days.
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Decision day is coming soon for South Carolina’s quarterback competition. Even if head coach Will Muschamp doesn’t make an announcement on a starter following Saturday night’s scrimmage in Williams-Brice Stadium, it is time for Muschamp and his offensive coaching staff to get settled in their minds what the position will look like when the Gamecocks start the season on the road against Vanderbilt.
Bentley, the son of South Carolina running backs coach Bobby Bentley who gave up his final year of high school eligibility to sign with the Gamecocks this summer, is the third man in a three-man race at the moment. During the three open practices this week he spent the vast majority of his time working with the third-string offense.
That leaves Orth and McIlwain, who have alternated days with the first-team offense through the first 18 practices of the preseason.
Orth, who started eight games last year, continues to look like the steady hand and the most ready to help South Carolina win games at the moment. However, the longer this competition continues, the more likely it becomes Muschamp and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will look to McIlwain, who comes with the high risk of being a first-year collegian and the high reward of being the team’s most athletic player at the position.
Like Bentley, McIlwain is plump with potential. He’s a four-star prospect himself and feels like a future All-SEC player, but fans rooting for the future to be now need to understand the reality of starting a true freshman quarterback in the SEC.
Missouri did it just last year, and South Carolina tight ends coach Pat Washington had a front row seat. Washington coached the Tigers’ wide receivers last season.
“The kid we played last year at Missouri is a very talented kid,” Washington said. “Very, very talented kid, but I don’t know if he was quite ready for what we had to do. The best thing that can happen for a young quarterback in my opinion is to redshirt them, let them learn how to play the game. That’s just my opinion. A guy could start here as a freshman. Jake is a heck of a player. Who knows? Brandon is a heck of a player. Who knows?”
Drew Lock is a heck of a player. He was Missouri’s true freshman starter last year. Before that, he was one of the best high school quarterbacks in the country, an Elite 11 participant and a top 10 prospect nationally. Last year, he completed 49 percent of his passes and threw eight interceptions against four touchdowns.
Type “Start a Freshman Quarterback” into your SEC calculator and that’s about the numbers you can expect it to spit out.
McIlwain is a contrast to Bentley. Where he lacks ideal height, he has something just as tantalizing these days to college football coaches and college football fans – dynamic athleticism. He rushed for almost as many yards as he threw for as a high school senior, and he threw for a lot (1,720 passing, 1,545 rushing).
Because of that running ability, it’s tempting for South Carolina fans to squint their eyes and try to make McIlwain look like Connor Shaw. Stop that silliness right now. Comparing McIlwain to the school’s all-time winningest quarterback is not fair to McIlwain or Shaw and will only lead to disappointment.
If you absolutely must compare the two, compare McIlwain with the Shaw who made his first career start against East Carolina in 2011. Shaw, a sophomore on that day, was 3-for-9 passing for 21 yards and the Pirates led 17-0 when he was yanked in favor of Stephen Garcia.
Orth is the only known commodity in this competition. He completed 54.8 percent of his passes last year, throwing for 1,929 yards, 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions, several of them critically timed. He no longer wants to be judged on his former-walk-on-made-good back story but strictly on his merits, he said.
“We’ve been talking about that story for a couple years now. It’s not about that anymore,” he said. “I’ve played in big time games, and I’ve proven to myself that I can do that. At this point, I just have to go out and win a job like I’ve done my whole career.”
Chances are he will win the job this year for the first game at least. For all the promise of McIlwain’s running ability and potential in Bentley’s arm ability, Orth’s experience remains the trump card in this competition. There will be plenty of taxing moments for the Gamecocks this year and the trajectory of the season will be defined in large part by how the quarterback manages those moments.
It’s likely the Gamecocks will play both Orth and McIlwain in the first game since redshirting McIlwain makes no sense with Bentley waiting in the wings. If South Carolina’s coaches believe the Gamecocks can win just as many games with the freshman at quarterback as they can with the senior at quarterback, then by all means they should say, “The future is now,” and start McIlwain from Game 1.
History suggests that’s not the case.
A look at the Gamecocks’ QBs:
6-1, 200, Senior
Case for: Experienced; started 8 games last year.
Case against: Why not start over with a freshman?
6-0, 205, Freshman
Case for: Dynamic athleticism. Can run and pass.
Case against: Even Connor Shaw wasn’t Connor Shaw at start.
6-3, 223, Freshman
Case for: Taller; throws a beautiful deep ball.
Case against: Should still be in high school.