By Jeff Owens/Photos by Jeff Owens and Allen Sharpe
HOOVER, Ala. — Jake Bentley has taken a lot of heat over the past couple of months for comments that some viewed as disparaging to rival Clemson.
But Bentley's remarks following spring practice were more about motivating his own team and pushing his teammates to make sure they never experience another drubbing like the 56-7 loss to the 2016 national champions.
“We just didn’t play well that week,” Bentley told a Columbia TV station in May. “We felt we got outworked. So our big thing is never again we will be outworked. Never again will be out-competed in a game like that. … Because at the end of the game, everyone knew that they weren’t that much better than us or better than us at all. It really just lit a fire in everybody."
Naturally, Bentley's comments didn't go over well among Clemson fans and were widely reported by both local and national media. To some, it made the sophomore quarterback look brash or cocky after just a half a season as South Carolina's starting quarterback.
Bentley said Thursday that his intention was not to tweak Clemson fans or discredit South Carolina's in-state rival, but to fire up and motivate his own team, like a star quarterback is supposed to do.
"It was more just about leadership," he said. "It really doesn't matter what I think. The media is going to write whatever. (But) anything I say is what I feel. I'm not going to take anything back and say I didn't mean it."
Bentley's comments and his handling of the mini-controversy are an example of how the second-year starter, who took over the team as a true freshman, has emerged as the team leader for South Carolina. It is Bentley who is pushing his team to work harder in the weight room and during the offseason and who has clearly taking the reins of coach Will Muschamp's team.
"Obviously Jake, with the season that he had, continued to improve in the fall. (But) what I have been most proud of is his offseason work as far as how he progressed in spring practice and now into the summer," Muschamp said Thursday at SEC Media Days. "He continues to take the next step. A lot of it has to do with the understanding of what it takes to be a quarterback, and he certainly understands that."
The 6-3, 220-pound Bentley has worked hard in the weight room, trying to keep up with such strongmen as TE Hayden Hurst. But he has also spent countless hours in the film room, reviewing last year's games and dissecting the Gamecock offense.
"Just going over the ins and outs of our offense, getting better at protections and getting better at different route concepts, how they change, and different coverages. Kind of getting a grasp of everything," he said.
He also spent part of the summer at the Manning Passing Academy, the camp for young quarterbacks run by Peyton and Eli Manning. While there, he forged a close relationship with Jalen Hurts, the Alabama quarterback who also took over his team as a freshman. The two talked a lot about their experiences leading SEC teams as true freshmen.
Bentley said he learned some valuable lessons from Hurts, who led Alabama to the national championship game against Clemson last year.
"He just talked about how you don't always have to be a vocal leader, that if you work hard, guys will follow you," he said. "If guys see you busting your tail every day at practice, they will follow you."
Bentley is trying to put those lessons into practice as he prepares for his second season at the helm of the South Carolina offense. He threw for 1,420 yards and nine touchdowns in seven games last year, while completing 65.8 percent of his passes. He led the Gamecocks to four wins in their final seven games and produced a record-setting performance against South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl.
While he has emerged as one of South Carolina's offensive stars and one of the best young quarterbacks in the SEC, he has tried hard to stay grounded and remain committed to the strong work ethic that earned him a starting opportunity.
"Our coaches and my teammates do a great job of that. They really keep me grounded," he said. "I see how hard Hayden works and how hard (WR) Deebo (Samuel) works and that makes me work hard, that makes me stay in the film room and … make sure I am taking care of my shoulder. It would be a disservice to me if I didn't work hard for them. I just try to go in and be the same guy and stay grounded."
Though Bentley earned a lot of praise for turning around a struggling South Carolina offense last year, he is quick to credit his teammates. Wide receivers Bryan Edwards and Samuel finished strong while Hurst emerged as one of the top tight ends in the nation. South Carolina also developed a strong running game behind freshmen backs Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner.
"It wasn't just me," Bentley said. "I got a lot of great guys on the outside with Hayden and Deebo and Bryan and (TE) K.C. (Crosby) and Rico in the backfield last year, they were all incredible and they did a great job," he said. "I knew if they played the hardest they could and the best they could, it would be easy for me. I'm just trying to stay in the film room and stay prepared and do my best."
The Gamecocks are expected to have an explosive offense this season and big things are expected from Bentley in his second season. He says "we are capable of anything," but is not concerned about his own stats or performance.
"I want to be one of the best but I am not going to be a guy who listens to the media and everybody's opinion," he said. "… To me, it is wins and losses. I don't care if I throw for 30 yards every game if we win the game."