Will Muschamp and South Carolina (4-4, 2-4 SEC) may be slowly but surely building something down in Columbia, and it all starts and ends with the quarterback position.
After what can aptly be described as a quarterback carousel over the first six games of the season — Perry Orth, Brandon McIlwain, Sean Kelly and Hayden Hurst all took snaps for the Gamecocks — Muschamp made a bold move against UMass and pulled the redshirt off of former four-star quarterback Jake Bentley from Opelika, Ala.
Bentley, who was South Carolina’s second-highest rated 2016 commitment, only behind McIlwain, responded to the call in a big way. Sure, it was against a one win Massachusetts team, but considering the fact that it was Bentley’s first start and college appearance, his performance against UMass was impressive.
He completed 17-of-26 passes against the Minutemen, throwing for 201 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Bentley was a breath of fresh air for South Carolina. Not only were the Gamecocks on a three-game losing streak, but it was a stretch that feature terrible quarterback play and as a result, poor offense.
The Gamecocks put up only 268 yards of total offense in the 17-10 loss to Kentucky, and if it weren’t for freshman running back A.J. Turner, they wouldn’t have found the end zone. They did put up 378 yards against Texas A&M, but four players threw the football, none throwing a touchdown while McIlwain threw a pick. Against Georgia, the running game led the way for the Gamecocks, while Orth couldn’t muster up a touchdown, instead throwing one pick.
So a two touchdown, no interception performance from a quarterback? Against UMass or not, that was a big deal for South Carolina.
The fact that the Gamecocks followed that up with a 24-21 upset win over reeling N0. 18 Tennessee was simply the cherry on top. They provided the Vols with their third-straight loss, and once again, Bentley looked great in the process.
Facing one of the toughest defenses in the SEC — not to mention one of the toughest pass rushes — Bentley completed 15-of-20 passes for 167 yards, two touchdowns and (again) no interceptions.
He found fellow freshman Bryan Edwards for a 17 yard strike early in the second quarter, looking cool under pressure as Tennessee brought a blitz off the edge:
SC QB Jake Bentley looks pretty advanced for a true freshman having graduated a full year early staring at an edge blitz on this RPO pic.twitter.com/5WXuUeWSPG
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) October 31, 2016
Bentley also threw a 35-yard deep strike to sophomore tight end K.C. Crosby. Bentley was hit hard on the play, but made a perfect pass to his wide open teammate streaking down the sideline.
— Rick Russo (@wvltrick) October 30, 2016
“That’s just Jake,” Crosby said after the game, according to Ben Breiner of thestate.com. “That’s him in practice. Even when the game got close, he kept his composure. He kept telling us that we were still in the game, we needed to finish strong and do what we had to do to get the win.”
Sophomore wideout Deebo Samuel also gave his thoughts on South Carolina’s freshman quarterback, saying, “Jake is a real tough guy. He played his heart out, and he gave it his all out there.”
Though the Gamecocks still do have the opportunity to play for a bowl game, it’s not as if Muschamp and his team are expected to make much more noise this season. Games against Missouri and Western Carolina are winnable, but they’ll need to have two more upsets in them, with matchups at No. 10 Florida and at No. 3 Clemson still left on the schedule.
With that said, there has to be a feeling of excitement in the air down in Columbia, especially because of the play Bentley. In two games, he’s taken the offense to heights it hasn’t really seen so far this season, and with a ton of young talent around him, the sky is the limit for South Carolina’s new starting quarterback and the rest of the offense.
Bentley truly does have the potential to be a big-time quarterback. As a recruit, he had offers from all over the country. Schools such as Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, Louisville, LSU, Nebraska and Stanford, among others, had offered, but he choose to go with the Gamecocks, providing Muschamp with arguably his most important commitment to date — especially when looking in hindsight.
It’s not always going to be easy for Bentley.
Remember, UMass is a one-win team right now and the Vols are struggling, so we’ll really get to see what the 6-foot-3, 223 pound signal-caller is made of against the likes of Florida and Clemson. Both teams have great defensive units, so Bentley will undoubtedly be tested.
Still, heading into year two of the Muschamp era at South Carolina, perhaps that’s all the Gamecocks can ask for. For all intents and purposes they’ve found their quarterback of the future, and he’ll be heading into his sophomore season with a few really nice wins under his belt, plus two huge top 10 road tests.
The Jake Bentley era has kicked off in grand fashion for South Carolina. And for once in what seems like forever, it’s an era of hope.