**By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe**
As Bobby Bentley marched around the field at James F. Byrnes High School, preparing his team for another run at the South Carolina state championship, his youngest son jumped up and down in a playpen next to the practice field.
Bentley, who was in the process of building one of the most successful high school football programs in the country, watched his young son and knew immediately that something was different about him.
"His brother was 5, and he was more dominant athletically than his brothers," Bentley said. "I knew something was different then."
Four years later, young Jake was playing flag football when his mother, Paulette, called Bobby one day from practice.
"He is faster than everybody he is playing with," she told her husband. "He may be pretty special."
"We kinda knew at that point that he was going to be good," Bobby said.
Still, it hadn't quite sunk in yet, the realization that the Bentleys might be watching the growth and development of greatness. Bobby, a former quarterback who played for a state championship at Byrnes, won four straight state titles at his alma mater before moving on to become the head coach at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C. In the process, he raised two college quarterbacks, Chase, who played at Rutgers, and Shuler, who played at Old Dominion. But it was young Jake who continued to awe him.
"In sixth grade, he never got tackled," Bobby said. "He scored every time he touched the ball and was never tackled. We knew then he may have a chance to be pretty good."
Twelve years later, we all know how good Jake Bentley is, and how good he could be. Which is why his father, now the running backs coach at South Carolina, and all of Gamecock Nation are so excited about the 2017 season and the next few years.
Jake went to Byrnes High School for only one year before his father moved the family to Opelika, Ala. when he became an assistant coach at Auburn. It was there that Jake grew into a four-star recruit and one of the best high school quarterbacks in the country. As a junior, he threw for 2,834 yards and 28 touchdowns to lead Opelika High School to a 12-1 record.
With scholarship offers already pouring in, that was enough of high school ball. When his father followed Will Muschamp from Auburn to Columbia, Jake signed with South Carolina and skipped his senior year to arrive on campus and join the football team a year early.
The original plan was for the 18-year-old freshman to redshirt his first year and learn all he could about college football. But with the Gamecocks off to a 2-4 start in Muschamp's first year, that plan abruptly changed. Bentley took over as starting quarterback in the seventh game of the season, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Bentley threw for 1,420 yards and nine touchdowns and led South Carolina to four wins in its last seven games, including an upset of No. 18 Tennessee. His 65.8 completion percentage was the fourth-best in school history, and he capped his marvelous freshman campaign by throwing for a record 390 yards and three touchdowns in the Birmingham Bowl.
But the young quarterback did much more than that. He instilled something in South Carolina and Gamecock Nation that it badly needed after an embarrassing 3-9 campaign that saw head coach Steve Spurrier step down in the middle of the 2015 season. He gave the program and Gamecock fans hope, hope that the team could very quickly return to the days of double-digit wins and contention for the SEC East title.
"He really came in and took control," sophomore offensive lineman Zack Bailey said of his teammate. "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.' … He took leadership, and that was a great thing for us."
The sky appears to be the limit for Bentley, who at 19 is 6-4, 223 pounds and still growing mentally and physically. Says offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, "He is big, he is athletic, he has a strong arm, and he is a guy I have a lot of trust in."
Perhaps more importantly, Bentley has all the intangibles to become a great quarterback, one with the potential to play at the next level. It starts with his drive and work ethic.
When Bentley is not on the practice field or in the classroom, he is at the football facilities watching video. A few days before the start of spring practice, Bobby Bentley called his son one night and found him at the stadium, studying film. He carries around a notebook he uses to compile information on the various defensive coordinators in the SEC and how they might attack him.
"Jake wants to be a pro," his father said. "Jake wants to be a great one, so it is constantly on his mind and he is constantly over here studying.
"That's the way Jake is built. He has always worked hard. He has always worked hard with his teammates, extra throwing sessions, extra weight-room workouts. And now he is just really captivated by the video, with the extra studying and extra working in regards to breaking down defenses and trying to figure out tendencies."
That's the kind of quarterback Roper wants running his offense. He wants the kind of player who is constantly thinking about football — even in the classroom.
"I want that guy when he is sitting in class when his mind wanders, I want it to wander to football," Roper said. "Jake Bentley is the type of guy who might be in physics class and go, 'Ooh, what if this happens on this protection.'
"You want a guy who loves the game and loves the process of the game. He doesn't just love Saturday, but loves being a quarterback, that would rather come over and watch tape on a Thursday night than go hang out with his friends. That's what I want."
Bentley's teammates noticed right away that he was not a typical freshman. "He doesn't act like an 18-year-old kid," Bailey said.
When the team is not practicing, Bentley often texts his offensive teammates and gathers them for extra drills.
"He's like, 'Hey, let's throw, let's do 7-on-7 for like 30 minutes or an hour,'" sophomore running back A.J. Turner said. "It's just little stuff like that that kinda shows his leadership in a lot of different ways."
When Bentley took over as the starting quarterback last season, he began gathering his offensive players together for dinner on Thursday nights. His mission was not to study the playbook or make last-minute preparations. It was about more than that.
"He was bonding with everybody," Bailey said. "He was going to dinner with receivers, running backs, tight ends, O-lineman, everybody. That was a big thing. He bonded with everybody."
It's that kind of maturity and leadership that made his teammates follow him last season — the kind of leadership that impresses coaches and belies Bentley's age and experience.
"He's an energetic, passionate, competitive individual, and I think people gravitate to that," Roper says." They obviously enjoy being around guys who are like that."
Bobby Bentley saw that competitive drive in his son from a young age. He recalls the superintendent at Opelika calling him one Friday afternoon on game day and telling him that Jake was in the high school gym diving for balls to try to win the game — a whiffle ball game.
"He's just a competitor," his father said. "Even if you are playing a game of cards at home, he is going to find a win to win, even if he has to cheat a little bit to beat you and beat the family and then talk trash to his brothers. That's just the way he is."
Bentley's competitive fire nearly got the best of him early last season. He had skipped his senior season of high school to get a jumpstart on his college career. Though such a move is extremely rare, Bentley believed that he should be playing as the Gamecocks struggled to pick up Muschamp's offense.
As week after week went by with senior Perry Orth and Brandon McIlwain, a true freshman who had participated in spring practice, under center, Bentley got more and more discouraged.
"I wanted to play, and I felt like I was ready," he said recently. "Muschamp told me every week just to be ready."
He was, but not getting the call was tearing him up inside, even though he knew the original plan was to redshirt him.
Coach Bentley saw how it was impacting his son.
"About that fourth week, he said, 'Dad, why did I do this? I could be playing in high school," Bobby Bentley said. "He wasn't getting any reps. He said, 'Dad, I wish I had stayed in high school because I'm not getting to play, I'm not getting a chance to play.'"
Bentley's advice to his son was to be patient, listen to his coaches and be ready when his number was called.
"I said, 'You heard what (coach Muschamp) said, just do what he says. Just keep your mouth shut and do your job.' He did that, and his hard work paid off."
Bentley, the coach, had to resist the temptation to lobby for his son. Though he knew Jake was ready to play, it was not his decision to make. He said he never talked to Muschamp or Roper about giving Jake a chance.
"I didn't think that was my role," he said. "It's kind of a touchy situation when your son is on the team and he is a quarterback and he's highly recruited. The guy could have played anywhere in the country, from West Coast to East Coast, from SEC to ACC to Big Ten. You don't really want to say a whole lot. You just kinda say, 'Hey, it will take care of itself.' And it did."
Roper admits he was apprehensive about putting a true freshman under center, especially one who had not been through spring practice and who had only been on campus a few months. But the more he saw of Bentley, the more he had a hunch he could succeed.
"The things I knew about him is that he was a competitor and it was important to him," he said. "There are not too many true freshman who play at quarterback, especially midway through the year, because it is such a challenge to understand, not only your system but how people are defending you.
"To say that he was ready to go play, mentally, in the sense of understanding, he wasn't. But he's a competitor and he knew enough to find a way to go win some football games. And we benefitted from that."
Bentley finally got his chance on Oct. 22. With his team reeling from three straight losses, he was named the starter for the non-conference game against UMass. Bentley responded by completing 17 of 26 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Gamecocks to a 34-28 win.
The following week, Bentley was outstanding again in an upset against nationally ranked Tennessee. He completed 15 of 20 passes for 167 yards and two more touchdowns, including the game-winner in the fourth quarter. A week later, he won his third straight game, tossing two touchdowns and completing 22 of 28 passes for 254 yards against Missouri to become the first true freshman quarterback to win his first three college starts since Steve Taneyhill in 1992.
It was against Tennessee that Bentley proved Roper and Muschamp right. There was one play in that game that convinced them that their freshman quarterback was the real deal.
With the game tied at 7, Bentley tossed a pass to freshman receiver Bryan Edwards on a fade route toward the corner of the end zone. With a defensive back draped all over him, Edwards made the grab for a touchdown. He was able to catch it because Bentley threw the pass in the perfect spot.
"That was when I said, 'OK, this guy is a football player,'" Roper said. "Just the speed of the game, how fast he was able to process it mentally and how fast he was able to do it physically, and then accurately. It was an impressive play."
The victory over SEC rival Tennessee made a believer out of many. And it gave Bentley the confidence he needed to take control of the South Carolina team and it's future.
"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."
As the team headed into spring practice Feb. 25, the coaching staff was excited about its second year under Muschamp, and raved about the potential of its new starting quarterback. Instead of the team being surrounded with uncertainty and inexperience, there was a sense of familiarity and confidence.
Muschamp says Bentley must work on his timing, technique and understanding of the game, but he adds, "The game is going to continue to slow down for a guy like him."
"His understanding of our offense should grow quite a bit and his comfort level should grow quite a bit," Roper says. "Now it makes sense to him. Before, all our conversations are first-time conversations. Now it's, 'Hey, you remember when, you remember this.' He can draw on experience now so it just makes you a better player."
And unlike last year, there is no uncertainty about who will be South Carolina's starting quarterback. Bentley, who won't turn 20 until Nov. 23, is confident, comfortable and firmly in control.
"Now I feel like I definitely have control of the offense and am able to really talk to the guys and fix things when they mess up," he said. "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."