**Story by Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe**
As sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley stood before a bright spotlight Wednesday, sweat popped out on his forehead and dripped down his face.
Bentley, who had just come from the weight room, looked like he had been running from linebackers all morning. Or maybe he was just nervous about facing the next big challenge in his college career.
Bentley, 19, was facing the media for the first time since taking over as South Carolina's starting quarterback as an 18-year-freshman. Head coach Will Muschamp doesn't allow freshman players to talk to the media, so Bentley had rarely faced a horde of reporters grilling him on the many facets of his game or probing for his deepest secrets.
But Bentley handled the experience like everything else he has faced so far in his meteoric career.
"I knew it was coming, so I just got ready for it," Bentley said with a smile.
Kind of like he did last season. When Bentley stepped on campus in Columbia last summer, he was an 18-year-old freshman who had skipped his senior year of high school to play major college football. A few months later, he took over as South Carolina's starting quarterback in the mighty SEC.
When Muschamp told him he would start Oct. 22 game against UMass, he handled the challenge like he had been preparing for it his whole life, which he had as a four-star recruit and one of the top high school quarterbacks in the country. The Gamecocks were in the midst of a three-game losing streak and had started the season 2-4 when Muschamp turned to his baby-faced freshman.
"(I was) just excited," Bentley said of the experience. "I knew we had a game to win the next week against UMass and I knew I had to catch up with the starters, not being able to throw with them all season. So I just really got in and worked hard and took it game by game and tried to get better every week."
He did. Bentley threw for 201 yards and two touchdowns in his first career start, leading the Gamecocks to a much-needed 34-28 win. The following week, he shined again, tossing two more TD passes to lead South Carolina to an upset over No. 18 Tennessee.
With Bentley under center, the Gamecocks won three straight games and four of their last seven to finish 6-6 in Muschamp's first season of a rebuilding project. His best game was his last, throwing for 390 yards and three touchdowns in a dramatic comeback that fell just short against South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl.
"It got better every week," Bentley said. "From the first game to the bowl game, things really slowed down."
For a high school senior to take over a major college football program with no spring practice and just three months of preparation is practically unheard of. But for Bentley, the son of legendary high school coach and Gamecock assistant Bobby Bentley, such a rapid ascension was no big deal. He realized after the win over Tennessee that he could succeed at the major college level.
"After the Tennessee game, that was definitely a great feeling that I could do it," Bentley said. "I have confidence in myself, but it takes a game or a play or two to realize that you can do it. Having a big win like that definitely helped me, and I think it helped the whole team."
With his strong arm and knack for big plays, Bentley energized a young, inexperienced offense that had sputtered early in the season. Senior walk-on Perry Orth struggled in Muschamp's conservative offense, and true freshman Brandon McIlwain, who unlike Bentley had participated in spring practice, was not ready.
"He really came in and just took control of it," offensive lineman Zack Bailey said. "He came in and said, 'This is our team and we're going to do it this way and we're going to change it.' That was his goal and he took leadership when he needed to. That was a great thing for us."
Now Bentley leads the Gamecocks into his first spring practice, and his status as the starting quarterback and leader of the team is one of South Carolina's most comforting certainties.
“Having Jake (Bentley) back in his second year is great," Muschamp said Wednesday. "He’s a guy that has really attacked the offseason in the right way as far as his meetings are concerned and he has got a better grasp of what we are offensively."
Bentley's experience and comfort level are the biggest differences from last season. That and his confidence.
Asked Wednesday if he should be the starting quarterback entering 2017, Bentley was succinct.
"Yeah, I do. Just from a comfort standpoint and growing with the same group of people. I think it will only get better if we can keep the same guys in the offense and keep it rolling.
"The leadership is the biggest difference," he added. "Now I feel like I definitely have control of the offense and am able to really talk to the guys and fix things they mess up. Getting here in the beginning, it took a while to learn. I was learning myself, so it was hard to have an influence on the other players. I'm just more comfortable with the whole team and where we want to go offensively."
So are his teammates.
"We anticipate him being the quarterback …," Bailey said. "If he is, having him behind us is a good thing. We have that chemistry, so it really helps us out. We understand him and his cadence. The difference in quarterbacks and cadences and how they throw the ball and how much time they sit in the pocket, that changes with each quarterback. So having him and knowing what he is going to do back there benefits us, and it helps us help him."
Bentley is ready for his next challenge, just as he was when he faced the media Wednesday.
"My whole life I have kinda been in the spotlight with my dad being a high-profile coach," he said. "I've always been looked at; you just have to watch what you say.
"Getting a year here and understanding what it takes to win and how things work, I'm ready to go."