By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe and Jenny Dilworth
It's 10 o'clock on a Thursday night in the heat of summer, and the Gamecock football players are scattered about town.
Some have gone out to eat. Others are lounging by the pool. Or hanging out at a teammate's house. Or playing video games. Taking a break from training camp and doing things college kids do.
Not Jake Bentley. The Gamecock quarterback is in the film room at Williams-Brice Stadium, dissecting defenses and analyzing games he played in last year.
And he's not just relishing the good performances, like when he threw for 390 yards and three touchdowns in the Birmingham Bowl. Or the three straight victories he led South Carolina to after taking over the starting role. He's dissecting the losses, like the 20-7 defeat to Florida when his offense managed just 256 yards of total offense and Bentley was sacked five times.
"I went over the ins and outs of that game, what was good, what was bad and what we need to work on," Bentley said. "There was a lot of stuff in that game that I need to work on. There is a lot of stuff every game that we need to work on. We went through every game a bunch of times this offseason and learned a lot."
Bentley's growth and maturity as a quarterback — from studying film to reading defenses on the field — is a big reason South Carolina is expected to have an explosive offense this season. With a wealth of talent around him, the Gamecocks have an offense that many believe can go toe-to-toe with almost any team in the SEC.
"The sky's the limit for this offense," second-year receiver Bryan Edwards said.
"We have great receivers and great running backs so there are a lot of things working around me to be very successful on offense. I am excited for us," Bentley said.
He is doing his part. After leading South Carolina to four wins in his seven starts last season, he enters the season as the Gamecocks' starting quarterback. And he has playmakers all over the field, including three returning starters at wide receiver and tight end and two running backs that combined for more than 1,200 yards rushing last year.
The development of Bentley and the return of 10 starters give Offensive Coordinator Kurt Roper the tools to open up the offense.
Roper will call the plays with head coach Will Muschamp weighing in on crucial situations. Though Bentley has a firm handle on the playbook, Roper does not believe in his quarterbacks calling plays. Instead, he will give Bentley the latitude to make adjustments to a run or pass depending on the defense.
Roper will consult with Bentley, however, soliciting his input on game plans and play-calling. He often test Bentley after his film sessions, seeking his advice on which plays to call in certain situations.
"He expects me to do my film work and be able to answer those questions," Bentley said. "… If I go in there and say, 'whatever coach,' he's going to know that I am not taking it seriously. I have to come in there with plays I like and he listens to us and to the other coaches. … But when we propose something to him, you have to have a rationale for why that play works."
Roper will give Bentley plenty of latitude during games, and solicit his input on adjustments.
"When we get to the sideline at the end of a series, Jake is the kind of guy I am going to say, 'Hey, is there anything you are feeling good about,' and I am going to take that into consideration." Roper said.
Roper and Muschamp have been criticized over the years for their conservative play-calling at Florida and last season at Carolina. But Roper ran a record-setting offense at Duke for six years and coached Super Bowl-winning quarterback Eli Manning at Ole Miss.
He plans to be aggressive this season, primarily because he has the weapons to orchestrate explosive plays.
"It takes more points to win games than it did when I first got into this league," he said. "I think you have to have an aggressive mindset and go out and try to score points."
That includes several plays a game designed to go deep. Wide receivers Bryan Edwards and Deebo Samuels can both stretch a defense, while tight ends Hayden Hurst and K.C. Crosby showed last year they can break big plays, too. Bentley showed off his arm in the first scrimmage of training camp, connecting on long plays to both Samuel and Hurst.
"It was evident that we have a lot of weapons on offense, and it is going to be fun to move them around in different ways and more creative ways," Bentley said.
The Gamecocks had a conservative, almost cautious approach in the first six games of last season with senior Perry Orth and true freshman Brandon McIlwain struggling to run the offense. Neither had played much and they were surrounded by freshmen and sophomores at the skill positions. That prevented Roper from installing as much of the offense as he wanted, limiting the game plan in the first six weeks.
The Gamecocks averaged 14 points per game during a 2-4 start and never scored more than 20 points in a single game.
"Perry had played a little bit but nobody else had played, and I don't think I was as worried about it until we started playing and I thought, this is not as far along as I thought it was," Roper said.
When Bentley took over in Game 7, Roper opened up the offense and was more aggressive.
In year two, he believes his returning players understand the offense well enough to expand the playbook even more. Bentley can read defenses better and change protections on the offensive line, while the multitude of skill players give him the opportunity to use multiple formations. The Gamecocks can spread the field with three or four wide receivers, use two-tight end sets or multiple backs.
"Now our system understanding is better and we can grow more, for sure," Roper said.
Bentley spends about three hours per day in the film room, not only reviewing past games but dissecting defenses and going through a checklist of situations. He's often there until 10:30 or 11 at night.
"I'm pretty sure I've slept here before," Bentley said. "Just getting in what we need to get in. You don't want to leave the facility knowing there was something else you could have watched or prepared for about their defense."
Much of Bentley's work in the film room has focused on line protections, reading defenses and making adjustments at the line of scrimmage. His coaches say most of his progress has come in the mental aspect of the game.
"I think football is really, really important to him, and because of that he really works at it and he has learned how to study the game," Roper said.
"The more and more coach Roper and our staff kept giving him, the better and better he continues to perform and improve," Muschamp said.
Bentley spent a lot of time over the summer with his offensive line, developing a close relationship with it and learning line protections and blocking schemes. That, Roper said, may be more important than learning the playbook.
"His management of protections and how to fix 'em, those things really make you sit back and go, 'Ok, he's starting to understand this," Roper said.
"With every protection, there are inherent problems with them and the first thing the quarterback has to know is what the inherent problem is, and I think his understanding of that is good. There were times when I don't think he knew who was blocked and who was not blocked. I think he has full grasp of that now."
Bentley's progress and talent on the field opens up all sorts of possibilities for the offense. Not only did Bentley emerge as the team's starter, but a trio of skill players also had breakout campaigns, clicking with their new quarterback. Samuel led the team with nine touchdowns, Hurst put up record-setting numbers for a Gamecock tight end and Edwards developed as a dangerous deep threat and red-zone target. And new playmakers are fighting for roles, from 6-4 freshman OrTre Smith to speedster Shi Smith.
Coupled with a deep stable of running backs, Roper will be able to spread the field and use multiple formations. There will be a lot of two tight-end sets and as many as four wideouts on the field at times.
"They are a problem because they can give you some different formations and some different personnel groupings," Defensive Coordinator Travaris Robinson said. "They do a good job providing different things that are hard to defend."
A big emphasis will be getting the ball to Samuel, who led the team in receptions last year and scored nine touchdowns in a variety of ways.
"He's a guy we are going to move around everywhere in our offense and get him the ball however we can," Bentley said.
"Deebo is extremely bright," Muschamp said. "He can play outside, he can play inside, he can play running back, he can do a lot of different things for us."
With so much talent and an experienced offensive line, the Gamecocks will try to create a balanced attack. They will allow the opponent and the situation dictate whether they run or pass. They showed that ability last season, with Bentley throwing for more than 200 yards four times and running backs Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner combining for four 100-yard games, including Dowdle's 226-yard performance against Western Carolina.
"In a perfect world, we would like to be balanced," Muschamp said. "As a defensive coach, it's hard to face teams that are balanced, that have the equal ability to run it and throw it. … Philosophically, that's what we want."
Though Bentley is likely to fling the ball down the field often, running the ball well will be key as well.
"You have to be able to run the football in critical situations," Roper said.
The biggest change on offense is simple familiarity, with Bentley and his young teammates having a better understanding of the offense and the confidence to execute it.
"You can just see the confidence in everyone growing, confidence in our system, playing faster and just player smarter," Bentley said. "It has definitely slowed down (for us)."