Building a case for the future of Jake Bentley at South Carolina first requires building proper context in regards to the situation the young Gamecocks quarterback stepped into in the final seven games of 2016:
- A four-star recruit from Opelika High School in Alabama, Bentley was supposed to be a senior in high school last season. But instead of enrolling a semester early to participate in spring practice, he reclassified into the class of 2016, graduating two semesters early to join South Carolina last summer. His father, Bobby Bentley, had been on the offensive staff at Auburn for two seasons before becoming running backs coach for the Gamecocks, and Jake Bentley followed him.
- The 2016 South Carolina offense didn't return a running back with more than 299 yards or a receiver with more than 12 catches. It also returned just two starters on the offensive line, from a 3-9 team that ranked 110th in scoring and 109th in yards per play, for a program that saw recruiting decline at the end of the Steve Spurrier era.
- The Gamecocks changed coaching staffs after Spurrier's abrupt midseason 2015 retirement, bringing in Will Muschamp as head coach. Muschamp got fired after four seasons at Florida in which his teams didn't rank better than 67th in yards per play and were criticized for lack of quarterback development and conservative play.
- With senior Perry Orth and freshman Brandon McIlwain playing the first six games, South Carolina scored a total of nine touchdowns in starting 2-4 against Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, East Carolina, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Georgia. Bentley didn't take a snap in any of those games, as he was presumably going to redshirt.
On Oct. 22, things looked bleak, and the Gamecocks decided to burn Bentley's redshirt and get an early look at the future. It's one thing for true freshman to play after enrolling in the spring. It's another thing to show up in the summer as planned. It's pretty much unheard of for a quarterback to not even know he was going to play college football that season until April, and then show up in the summer.
Bentley turned 19 late last season, making him a typical age for a college freshman, but it was nevertheless a bold move for all involved. Bentley proceeded to lead the Gamecocks to a 4-2 record in their final six regular-season games to garner an invitation to the Birmingham Bowl. He had a disastrous game against Clemson -- something that hardly unique to Bentley last year -- and a rough outing in a loss to Florida -- again, not exactly unusual -- but he completed 15 of 20 with two TDs and no INTs in a season-changing win over Tennessee, he torched Missouri and he threw for 390 yards with three TDs and two INTs in a 49-36 bowl loss to USF. In total, Bentley played in seven games, completing 65.8 percent for 1,420 yards, nine TDs and four INTs while showing some running ability but finishing with negative rushing yards because of all the sacks he took.
The negatives were to be expected, especially given the youth of the supporting cast around him. Behind a beleaguered offensive line, Bentley often held onto the ball too long and didn't always have a feel for where pressure was coming from -- none of which is atypical for a freshman. Ultimately, handling pressure is one of the most important traits for all quarterbacks, and how Bentley develops when the pocket collapses will dictate the arc of his career. Of course, he has already had a fair amount of success under pressure despite his youth, as Pro Football Focus pointed out:
No returning QB in the SEC was better under pressure than South Carolina's Jake Bentley in 2016. pic.twitter.com/BUweMvoS0R- PFF College Football (@PFF_College) June 12, 2017
As Bentley has gained experience along with the rest of the offense, South Carolina believes he'll be put in better position to succeed with a better grasp of the offense and more flexibility.
"I think right now we're in a situation, because of our experience -- a lot of the credit can go to Jake, but really to our entire offense -- to be able to get out of a bad protection and get out of a bad run," Muschamp said after the Gamecocks' spring scrimmage. "A lot of times last year we were 'call it and haul it,' and we didn't have the ability to be able to do that. So now we're able to get to the line of scrimmage and go fast, if we want to go fast. If we don't like the look, Jake's able to get us out of it."
Despite some of the questionable decisions, Bentley showed a lot of positive traits, with a willingness to stand tall under pressure and deliver passes with defenders around him. Bentley moves his feet well, and he's able to scan the field and keep his eyes downfield when the pocket collapses.
Bentley's ball placement was impressive, for the most part, as he often put passes where only his receivers could go up and get to them, even when they appeared covered.
Bentley was a top prospect for a reason, and while it's early, the pro potential is undeniable for a nimble quarterback who is 6-foot-4, 223 pounds, and has the timing, accuracy and mechanics to put him on the right track for growth.
There are reasons for skepticism, but there are reasons for skepticism about just about every quarterback in the SEC, which features a bunch of transfers and young players who are not totally proven yet and are still trying to reach their potential. Our breakdown of the top 35 quarterbacks in the nation featured eight from the SEC, but ordering them within the league isn't easy, with no definitive answer. Jacob Eason's best throws at Georgia look as good as anybody's, but his performances were all over the map last year. In a smaller sample size, evaluating Bentley poses many of the same problems.
Ultimately, we're talking about young college quarterbacks with a lot of room for improvement, and projecting them going forward presents tricky questions about whether the negatives we've seen will be minimized in favor of more of the positives.
"Sometimes you can just tell that they are savvy," Archie Manning told The State at the Manning Passing Academy, where Bentley was a counselor. "He's kind of got it. He's playing in a tough conference. I'm not saying he's going to set the world on fire, but you can tell he's going to be a good one."
None of the young SEC quarterbacks stepped into trickier situations than Bentley last year. He was a true freshman quarterback who led an offense that, going into the bowl game, featured only one first-team senior and two first-team juniors on the depth chart, as the leading rushers and receivers were all freshmen and sophomores. Despite the youthful problems, the positives easily outweighed the negatives in regards to Bentley and the potential that he showed.
Any offense with Muschamp as head coach warrants skepticism until proven otherwise after what happened at Florida, but this is the first time that offensive coordinator Kurt Roper -- who did stellar work under David Cutcliffe at Duke -- actually gets the time to develop a quarterback on a Muschamp staff, because he spent only the last, doomed-to-fail year on the Florida staff. Bentley will have nearly his entire offense back, including the top five receivers, a rising star at tailback in Rico Dowdle and one of the nation's best tight ends in Hayden Hurst.
Of course, it's unreasonable to expect truly big things from South Carolina just yet, even if it could be an SEC East sleeper. Given the youth that still exists -- there are still only two senior starters on offense -- the goal for the Gamecocks should be building toward 2018 and making incremental progress.
The hardest part in building program can be finding a quarterback, as Muschamp knew all too well in Gainesville, but the good news for South Carolina is that the quarterback of the future is already the quarterback of the present, one set to become a valuable impact player in the SEC even sooner than expected.