**Story by Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dillworth**
Perhaps no one on the South Carolina coaching staff is more excited to see spring practice start Saturday than co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kurt Roper.
Roper has the keys to what should be one of the most explosive offenses in the SEC next season. An offense led by budding star Jake Bentley at quarterback and filled with talented playmakers all over the field.
Roper knows that now. He didn't last year when he entered spring practice for the first time with head coach Will Muschamp's staff. Unlike last year, Roper's offensive roster is filled with more than just hope and potential.
"When we started our offseason conditioning program … I looked around and go, 'I know that guy can play, I know that can play, I know that guy can play,'" Roper said. "This time last year, you are going, 'Well, I hope that guy can play and I hope that guy can play.' That's where we are going into the second year."
Roper, who coached with Muschamp at Florida before following him to South Carolina, had no idea who would play on offense when spring practice began last season. He started with senior walk-on Perry Orth at quarterback, with the hope that true freshman Brandon McIlwain could push him for the starting job. Bentley wasn't even in the picture at the time, and neither were some of the other young star who would eventually emerge.
By the end of the year, he had 10 freshman and sophomores either starting or getting significant playing time on offense — an offense that capped the year by racking up 481 yards and scoring 39 points in the Birmingham Bowl against South Florida.
"You have some known players now," Roper said. "Last spring, you were going to have to evaluate and find out. Now, we feel like we have some guys who can play at a high level in the SEC. We need to be healthy and we need to grow and get those reps. But we feel like we have some players who can play on Saturday for us."
The Gamecocks are loaded at receiver with Debo Samuel (7 total touchdowns), Bryan Edwards (4 TDs) and Chavis Dawkins all returning, along with a host of other options. Tight ends Hayden Hurst (48 catches) and K.C. Crosby (4 TDs) also return, and have other talented players pushing them.
But perhaps the deepest position on the field might be running back, where coach Bobby Bentley returns two starters, Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner, who combined for more than 1,200 yards rushing and nine touchdown last year. They are joined by Ty'Son Williams, a transfer from North Carolina, sophomore Mo Denson and Wisconsin transfer Caleb Kinlaw.
Bentley shares the same sense of excitement and familiarity that Roper has.
"We have flipped this running back room completely," Bentley said Friday. "We had this meeting last year and we had one guy who had a carry, one guy with any experience. Now you flip this room and you've got two guys who rushed for over 1,200 yards. You've got a guy who played at North Carolina as a freshman, you've got a guy who played at Wisconsin.
"You feel like all of a sudden you have a chance to have an elite backfield."
And leading it all, of course, is Jake Bentley, who led the Gamecocks to four wins in their last seven games after taking over as a true freshman in the middle of the season. Though Bentley shined in his first season, throwing for 1,420 yards and nine touchdowns (with a 65.8 completion percentage) in just seven games, he has much to improve on.
His development, leadership and work ethic will set the tone in spring practice.
“Work is not going to be an issue for Jake — he’s going to work. That’s one of the great talents he has," Muschamp said. "He’s a guy that you have to continue to work on with his timing and the fundamentals and techniques of the position. And obviously his understanding of the game. The game is going to continue to slow down for a guy like him.
"I’m never concerned with his work ethic and how he’s going to positively affect the guys around him. That’s what is expected, but that’s something I know will happen.”
Roper's goal in spring practice is to continue to develop the talented young players that emerged last year, and to see who else steps up to contribute.
"If we can get one player, two players, five players better that can help us on Saturday, then we have had a successful spring," he said. "I think offensively, we've got to take the next step in our attention to detail in our offense. But if we can somebody better to help us make plays, then we have gained in the spring."