By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe
South Carolina offensive coordinator Kurt Roper faces a big challenge as he continues to develop starting quarterback Jake Bentley and prepare him for the 2017 season.
It's not getting Bentley ready to play that concerns him. And it's not opening up the playbook and offense to suit the sophomore QB's vast talent.
What Roper is most concerned about is pushing Bentley too far too soon and overloading him with knowledge and complex schemes because he knows that his young quarterback can handle it.
"Jake is really smart and he works at it and studies and knows what's going on, but sometimes communicating it and being able to actually execute it are two different things," Roper said after South Carolina's second day of fall practice Tuesday. "What I would say right now, over two days, we're probably asking him to do too much early on. Not that he can't get all that, but you're dealing with a guy that I have a lot of trust in, so you're like, more, more, more, because you can have a conversation. You just have to be careful."
That's a good problem to have for a team that had no idea who it's starting quarterback would be this time last year. In what was supposed to be his senior year of high school, Bentley led South Carolina to four wins in his seven starts, culminating with a record-setting performance in the Birmingham Bowl against South Florida. His emergence as a true freshman has given Roper's offense tremendous potential and high hopes for this season.
As South Carolina begins its first week of fall practice, both Roper and head coach Will Muschamp have marveled at how much Bentley has progressed on and off the field during the offseason. With have a season of experience under his belt, he appears ready to take a big step forward, giving the team all sorts of possibilities offensively.
Bentley, who won his first three games as a starter, was impressive during spring practice, absorbing the offense and developing chemistry with an array of offensive weapons. He continued to work hard during the summer, studying game film and working on his leaderships skills.
"He's in the building all the time watching tape," Muschamp said. "He's hanging out with the offensive line, he's hanging out with the defensive line, he's hanging out with the secondary. He understands what it takes to be a quarterback. … He has all the intangible qualities for handling the position. I am looking forward to seeing him play this year."
Roper said much of Bentley's improvement is attributed directly to his commitment to studying the playbook and game film from last year.
"This is the guy who on Thursday night is in the film room at 10 o'clock," Roper said of Bentley. "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. … It's basically trying to get total command of our system, and he's really good at that."
Because of Bentley's progression and a talented group of skill-position players at receiver and running back, Roper and Muschamp are expected to open up the playbook this season, using multiple formations and a wide variety of run and pass plays.
As offensive coordinator, Roper will call the plays, but he has a quarterback now who is capable of making adjustments at the line of scrimmage and providing schematic input on the sidelines. Bentley will have the latitude to change plays if he doesn't like the defensive alignment he sees, or recognizes an opportunity to take advantage of a certain defense.
"If we have a pass call that we don't like versus a certain look, he has got the ability to change that pass," Roper. "(And then) 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."
Because of his work in the film room, Bentley greatest progress has come in understanding the offense and being able to recognize defenses, allowing him to change protections by his offensive line. That, more than anything, could help South Carolina's offensive line improve and, in turn, help make the offense more productive and explosive.
"Jake's progress was as much mentally as physically," Muschamp said. "Understanding where he is protected and where he is not protected. Understanding about being able to change the protection in the run game. All those things."
In Roper's offense, recognizing protections is key to understanding which play to run and how to adjust at the line of scrimmage. Bentley is starting to grasp those concepts, he 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," Roper said. "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. I think he is doing a good job of manipulating our protections based on pressure that he can see and things like that."
Tight end Jacob August says Bentley's knowledge of the offense gives the offense more confidence than last season, when South Carolina had a host of young players on offense. South Carolina averaged just 14 points per game in the first six games last year, but bumped that to 26.5 in the seven games Bentley started.
"It's huge, man. Last year as a true freshman, when you have only played six games, you are reading one or two guys and you kinda have to predetermine what you are doing," August said. "Now he knows everyone else, he knows the pass sets that the offensive line is doing so he can really assess what he needs to do."
That progression has given the offense a lot of confidence in their sophomore quarterback.
"Guys are starting to listen to him a lot more and everybody is confident in him," August said. "They want to listen to him and they want to get better so they can perform for him."
All of that leads to what Roper believes will be a more aggressive and explosive offense in 2017.
"In football today, 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."