**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Juan Blas**
When you look at last season's overall statistics, the South Carolina football team struggled on the offensive side of the ball. The Gamecocks were last in the SEC in points per game and total yards per game.
But when you look at the personnel on that side of the ball, it's not hard to find the answer to the struggles. South Carolina started a freshman quarterback, freshman running back and freshman wide receiver. In addition, the leading wide receiver and tight end were both sophomores.
The first half of the season was a particular struggle for the Gamecocks as they searched for a starting quarterback. Initially, Perry Orth and freshman Brandon McIlwain went back and forth at the position. As a result, South Carolina failed to score more than 20 points in any of the first six games.
That all changed when Jake Bentley made his first appearance in game No. 7 against Massachusetts. The Gamecocks scored a season-high 34 points in the win.
Of course, that was against an inferior team, but Bentley and South Carolina really showed the improvement in a 24-21 upset win over nationally-ranked Tennessee a week later. The next week brought 31 more points in a victory over Missouri.
Overall, the Gamecocks averaged 24.5 points per game over the final six regular season games. They averaged just 14 points during the first six games.
There were growing pains because of the youth last season, but that spells great things for this upcoming year. The Gamecocks lose just one starter on the offensive side of the ball, left tackle Mason Zandi. It was immediately evident when spring practice started that things were going to be a lot different.
"I think we took tremendous strides," freshman receiver Bryan Edwards said. "We got a good quarterback in there and people know what they're doing. We have a year under our belt in the system, and we're just further developing things."
That year of experience is huge for the young offensive players, and it allows the coaching staff to implement more of a cohesive gameplan. This time last year the coaching staff was just trying to make sure everyone was where they were supposed to be.
"Right now we're in a situation because of our experience, we're able to get out of a bad protection, get out of a bad run," head coach Will Muschamp said. "A lot of times last year we were call it and haul it. We didn't have the ability to be able to do that. Now we're able to get to the line of scrimmage and go fast if we want to, and if we don't like the look, Jake's able to get us out of it.
"A lot of the credit goes to him, but to our offense also for understanding. I think we're further along. Credit another year in the system. A very young team last year that now understands how important the meeting room is, and taking it from the meeting room to the field. We've got some mature guys that understands what it takes to be successful."
The offense was on full display during the annual Garnet and Black spring game on April 1. There were a combined 908 yards off offense, and Bentley completed 19-of-31 passes for 301 yards and three touchdowns.
That production came without the services of Deebo Samuel and Hayden Hurst, the two leading receivers last season, and tailback A.J. Turner, the second-leading rusher last year.
"I think it's grown tremendously," Bentley said of the offense. "I've always said we've got explosive players. I think people saw (at spring game) the depth that we have and the vast amount of playmakers that we can put on the field. That's great for us. Everyone is more comfortable in the system, and you can really see that."
Once the Gamecocks get all of their playmakers in the fold in the fall, it should be even more exciting to watch. Talented freshmen like OrTre Smith and Shi Smith should add even more depth to the fold. Of course, there's still nearly three months until the Gamecocks report for fall practice, so a lot can happen between now and then.
With limited contact with the coaching staff, it's up to the players to continue to work with one another and improve. Luckily for the Gamecocks, they have a quarterback who is the son of a coach, so he understands the little details it takes to truly be successful.
Now a sophomore, Bentley is taking charge.
"I definitely have a different role now as that leader," Bentley said. "Last year I was just trying to come in and do my best, really. This year there's more pressure on us because we've been here a year and people are expecting more."