By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe
Will Muschamp had just had one of the worst weekends of his career, and he was looking for answers.
Muschamp's South Carolina team had just lost to Georgia in a Sunday afternoon game that was postponed a day by Hurricane Matthew. The loss was South Carolina's third straight, the second straight at home and dropped the Gamecocks to 2-4 in Muschamp's first season as head coach.
The Gamecocks won their season opener at Vanderbilt and squeaked past East Carolina at home, but they had lost road games to Mississippi State and Kentucky and dropped home games to Texas A&M and Georgia. While the defense was respectable, the offense was struggling, averaging just 14 points per game with senior Perry Orth and freshman Brandon McIlwain splitting time at quarterback.
Muschamp was beyond frustrated and he needed to make a change. And with an open week on the schedule before another home game against UMass, the timing was right for a drastic move.
But the move he was considering was a gamble. Should he stick with Orth, a former walk-on who came on strong as a junior, and keep trying to develop McIlwain, a highly recruited freshman? His other option was another true freshman — one who was supposed to be a high school senior.
Muschamp called his boss, Athletics Director and former head baseball coach Ray Tanner.
"I said, 'am I wrong to think we need to play a high school senior?'" Muschamp said. "He said 'absolutely not.' … He said, 'You know, if your gut tells you to do it, do it.'"
The next morning, Muschamp went to his office at Williams-Brice Stadium to talk to offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.
"I told Kurt we're going to open it up," Muschamp said. "He agreed with that, and we moved forward from there."
The gamble turned out to be a revelation. After just three months of practice, Bentley threw for 201 yards and two touchdowns in his college debut to lead South Carolina to a 34-28 win over UMass. The next week, he threw two more TDs in a 24-21 upset over Tennessee, and followed that up with 254 yards and two more touchdowns in a 31-21 win over Missouri to improve to 3-0 as a starter and earn SEC Freshman of the Week.
Bentley finished the season with 1,420 yards passing and nine touchdowns in seven games, while completing 65.8 percent of his passes. He led the Gamecocks to wins in four of their final seven games and set a Birmingham Bowl record with 32 completions and 390 yards passing in a 46-39 shootout loss to South Florida.
"He brought us a spark," Muschamp said of Bentley, who was named the team's co-MVP with wide receiver Deebo Samuel.
A four-star recruit, Bentley was one of the top quarterbacks in the country as a junior at Opelika High School in Alabama. When his father, Bobby, followed Muschamp to South Carolina, Jake had a decision to make — transfer to his third high school in four years and learn yet another new offense, or graduate early and skip his senior season. He already knew he was going to sign with South Carolina, so he decided to take a chance.
"I thought it was a great thing to do," Bentley said.
The young QB arrived on campus last summer and performed well in fall camp, but Muschamp did not believe he was ready to start at the beginning of the season. He continued to improve, but he did not have the reps of Orth and McIlwain.
"I just didn't at the time, going into the season, feel like he was as prepared as the other two quarterbacks," Muschamp said.
But as Orth and McIlwain struggled running the offense, Bentley began to turn heads. On Sunday nights, while the starters healed and rested, Muschamp and his assistant coaches worked with younger players to help develop them for the future. They had planned to red-shirt Bentley, but he progressed so rapidly Muschamp and Roper began to reconsider.
"Those practices are where guys really develop," Bentley said. "You don't get a lot of reps in practice if you are lower on the depth chart. It's a way for the coaches to see what you can do. I just used those to get better and show them that I was ready to play."
After watching Bentley continue to improve once the season began, Muschamp went to Roper and began discussing making Bentley the starter. With South Carolina 2-4 and reeling, he was ready to entrust the offense to his high-school-senior-turned-freshman.
"I talked to Coach Roper and said, 'Coach, he's starting to get it. He's starting to understand what we need to do,'" Muschamp said.
After the loss to Georgia, Muschamp met with Bentley during the bye week.
"He sat me down and said we're going to give you a chance," Bentley said. "He said, 'If you do good in practice this week, you will play against UMass and we'll see where it goes from there.' I took it in stride and just tried to do my best and put it all out there on the field."
The next three weeks were a whirlwind for Bentley as he led South Carolina to score after score and three straight victories. He had not only won the job as starting quarterback but established himself as the leader of the team and the future of Gamecock football.
"It was crazy, going from getting red-shirted to given a shot in the bye week to taking over the job for the UMass game," Bentley said. "But every week I prepared like I was going to play, so it wasn't that much of transition to actually get out there. But it was crazy when we started to win those three games."
Giving Bentley a chance was the biggest move Muschamp made last year, and it turned around the season. Under Bentley, the Gamecocks went from a team heading toward a second straight dismal year to winning four late-season games to become bowl eligible and finishing 6-7.
"He played outstanding football for us," Muschamp said. "He made good decisions with the ball and got the ball to the right people. Obviously, getting Deebo Samuel back healthy and Bryan Edwards back healthy helped as well. But Jake is a guy who understands our system and what we want to do and how we want to do it and continues to learn and work on what he has got to do to be successful."
While Bentley was impressive on the field, showing accuracy on short passing and the ability to stretch the field with the long ball, his leadership on and off the field was just as important. Throughout the turnaround, Bentley remained humble and rallied his teammates around him, motivating them to elevate their games as well. As a leader, he showed poise and maturity beyond his years.
"It wasn't just me. I got a lot of great guys on the outside with Hayden and Deebo and Bryan and (Tight end) K.C. (Crosby), and Rico in the backfield, they were all incredible and they did a great job," Bentley said. "I knew if they played the hardest they could and the best they could, it would be easy for me. I just tried to stay in the film room and stay prepared and do my best."
The biggest question entering season two of the Muschamp era is, what can Bentley do for an encore? If he can continue to progress and realize his vast potential, then South Carolina could have one of the most explosive offenses in the SEC and have a shot to contend in the East.
Muschamp sees that happening, praising Bentley for his performance in the spring and his work in the weight room and film room this summer.
"He continues to take the next step," Muschamp said. "A lot of it has to do with the understanding of what it takes to be a quarterback, and he certainly understands that."
Part of Bentley's offseason work included spending time at the Manning Passing Academy, the camp for young quarterbacks run by Peyton and Eli Manning. While there, he met another young star quarterback in Alabama's Jalen Hurts.
Bentley and Hurts, who led Alabama to the national championship game as a true freshman, forged a close relationship and shared experiences from their first seasons leading SEC teams. Bentley says he learned a lot from Hurts.
"He just talked about how you don't always have to be a vocal leader, and that if you work hard, guys will follow you," Bentley said. "If guys see you busting your tail every day at practice, they will follow you.
"(But) trying to tell a senior defensive lineman he is doing this wrong or he needs to pick it up here, that's not easy to do. You definitely have to find a way to go about it the right way. You have to gain the respect of all your teammates before you can do that."
Tight end Hayden Hurst sees that happening. He and Bentley have become good friends, with Hurst pushing Bentley in the weight room. The biggest thing Bentley brought to the offense last season, he says, was consistency and continuity.
"We were kinda guessing week in and week out, who are we going to go with, what's the plan?" Hurst said. "Having us name Jake the starter, guys could kind of get comfortable with him and understand how the offense is going to work and play, and it creates a relationship."
This will be the first season that Hurst and Samuel, both juniors, have played with a consistent starting quarterback, one they know will be under center each week, barring injury.
"That's huge," Hurst said. "We're developing relationships in the offseason and getting comfortable with routes. Having a named starter and having Jake be it, good things are going to come."
"We go off what Jake tells us as the leader of the offense," Samuel says. "Everyone knows what's going on. Last year was just a learning process so everyone knows what to do and how to do it."
So how good can this offense be with the return of Bentley, Samuel, Hurst and a stable of running backs?
Bentley believes the potential is unlimited.
"Our big thing is that we think we can execute any play against any defense," Bentley said. "…. Our mindset offensively is to score every time we get the ball. Everyone on our offense believes that we have the tools to do that."
The Gamecocks flashed that potential in the bowl game against South Florida, when Bentley led South Carolina to 39 points and 481 yards of total offense.
"That game was really big for us offensively," Bentley said. "It showed us we are capable of anything."
It also tested South Carolina's mettle and toughness. The Gamecocks trailed 22-7 and 29-14 before rallying to tie the game at 39 with 1:11 remaining. They overcame five turnovers, including a pick-6 and two fumbles in the red zone.
"We just kept fighting, and I think that's the mentality of our offense," Bentley said. "No matter what happens, just keep fighting. … I think we really implemented that."
With the talented Bentley firmly entrenched as South Carolina's starting quarterback, and a host of talented playmakers around him, optimism abounds in Muschamp's second season.
"I think we are capable of a lot," Bentley said. "We are going to treat every game like it's our last and just go out there and put our best effort on the field."