By Jeff Owens/Photos by Juan Blas
There are plenty of questions surrounding the South Carolina football team entering the 2017 season, but there is one lurking beneath the surface that gives Gamecock fans nightmares.
What happens if starting quarterback Jake Bentley goes down with an injury?
Fourth-year junior Michael Scarnecchia believes he knows the answer.
"I feel like if my number gets called, I can take that role on with no problem," he said.
Scarnecchia, a junior from Fleming Island, Fla., was in line for possible playing time last season before a shoulder injury knocked him out for the entire season. He was competing with senior Perry Orth and true freshman Brandon McIlwain for the starting job in the spring when he re-aggravated the lingering injury and was forced to have surgery on his non-throwing shoulder.
Orth and McIlwain shared the starting job during the first six games before Bentley took over the position for good. Had Scarnecchia not gotten hurt, he might have gotten a shot at earning playing time and perhaps changing the direction of the Gamecock offense.
"The most frustrating part was the injury because the way last year played out, I might have seen playing time," Scarnecchia said. "I wish the injury hadn't been there, but I'm a big guy and I'm a big believer that everything happens for a reason. I don't know why it happened, but I am going to use it to help me out this year. I learned a lot during that year off and I am going to try to use it to push me forward to where I want to go."
While Bentley is firmly entrenched as the starter and the future of the Gamecock offense, Scarnecchia appears set as the primary backup. A redshirt junior, he entered fall camp as No. 2 on the depth chart with only one scholarship freshman and three walk-ons behind him.
While the thought of Bentley going down with an injury is frightening for Gamecock fans, the coaching staff believes Scarnecchia can fill the starting role adequately if needed.
"I think Michael certainly has the arm talent to play the position extremely well," head coach Will Muschamp said.
"I thought Mike had a good spring," Offensive Coordinator Kurt Roper said. "Mike can throw the ball. He's cut from the same mold as Jake from the sense that he is going to be a pocket passer, so we are largely doing the same things with him. And he can physically throw the ball."
Instead of dwelling on what might have been, Scarnecchia is embracing his role and preparing as if he were competing for the starting job.
"Just like if you're the starter, because you're one play away and you never know when your number is going to get called, so you go out there and you prepare like you're the starter," Scarnecchia said prior to training camp. "You watch film like you are the starter and you take it as seriously as you can because when your number gets called, you don't want to go out there and be unprepared."
Scarnecchia and Bentley live across the hall from each other in the athletic dorms and have become good friends. Scarnecchia has watched Bentley's progression from a true freshman to the starting quarterback and learned from his work ethic and study habits.
"It definitely impressive to see a young guy come in like that and perform well," Scarnecchia said. "He's a perfectionist … He will study for hours and hours on something that is a little thing just to help him get better. He is a competitor. Sometimes he's overly competitive, but that's what you want to see in your players. The greats have that, the Tom Bradys. You know how serious they take everything, and he's like that. He takes everything seriously."
Scarnecchia, who threw 28 touchdown passes and led his high school team to a 10-1 record as a senior, was not highly recruited but performed well as a redshirt freshman, being named the Most Improved Freshman on offense during the spring. He played one series against LSU, completing his only pass for nine yards and running the ball once.
He has the arm strength and accuracy to run the Gamecock offense. The challenge is grasping the offense and executing it under pressure, which is difficult to learn without live game action.
"Sitting in a meeting room, I would say yes," Roper said. "But Mike hasn't played yet. Not trying to be too critical of Mike, but until the lights come on and you start playing, I don't know. But he does a good job on the practice field and he does a good job communicating. But Saturday is a lot different than Tuesday morning.
"I told Mike, his challenge needs to be not to get comfortable waiting in the wings. We all understand our quarterback situation right now, but he needs to go compete every day to get better and be prepared, and I think he is."
Scarnecchia is working hard to prove himself in practice and prepare for the season. He is confident he can get the job done.
"I feel like I have the arm strength and the accuracy and I feel like I'm gaining knowledge every single day I'm on the field," he said. "I feel like I can go out there and be the starter."