COLUMBIA — This was supposed to his year. Jake Bentley’s senior season was going to fulfill every bit of the massive promise long stapled to him.
He has another chance, but it won’t be at South Carolina. The senior quarterback announced Monday he will graduate in two weeks and transfer for his final season of eligibility.
“This is one of the toughest decisions I have ever had to make," Bentley said in a statement. "Leaving this incredible university is extremely difficult. I will forever be grateful to the coaches, professors, administrators and my teammates of this great school."
Bentley did not say where he would be transferring, but he will want to go to a school with a need for a starting quarterback so he can build his resume for a possible NFL career. It was paused this season when he broke his foot in a season-opening loss to North Carolina, putting freshman Ryan Hilinski in his place. With Hilinski, Dakereon Joyner, Jay Urich and Myrtle Beach star Luke Doty set to be in the quarterback room next year, USC could only offer Bentley a chance to compete for playing time.
The decision was expected, although Bentley waited until the end of a 4-8 season to announce it. It was a strange circle to complete, Bentley anointed as the savior when he engineered a turnaround to a bowl game in 2016 but facing catcalls and howls for his play as a sophomore and junior.
With Hilinski starting strong but regressing, some were wishing Bentley could return and save the Gamecocks’ season. He did all he could for the team, attending meetings and practices to tutor Hilinski and the other backups, but once he had surgery on his foot, there was no way he could play again this season.
“It’s hard. The guy puts everything into being the quarterback here at South Carolina,” coach Will Muschamp said. “He’s been at all of our home games, and all of our practices, and all of our meetings, and in the training room constantly supporting our guys. He’s been exactly who you’d think he’d be. That’s who he is, that’s what type person he is, that’s how he was raised.”
It was set up so perfectly when Bentley took the starting spot as a true freshman. With the Gamecocks struggling at 2-4 in Muschamp’s first season, the coach agonized over the decision to start Bentley, a part of South Carolina schoolboy royalty due to his father Bobby Bentley’s success at Byrnes High.
Muschamp gambled by risking Bentley’s redshirt year on a disastrous season, but Bentley won four of the Gamecocks’ final six regular-season games to get them to a bowl. He was entrenched from then on, named MVP of the Outback Bowl as a sophomore.
Bentley’s talent was as notable as his inconsistency. He could play lights-out in stretches before having a string of bad games. It was the storyline of last summer after a 7-6 season in 2018.
He entered his senior year in reach of several of the Gamecocks’ career passing records, but of his 19 career wins, none were over Georgia or Clemson. He only had one win over a Top 25 team (No. 18 Tennessee, 2016) and beat unranked Michigan in the Outback Bowl.
“I think the biggest thing is not to take anything for granted,” he said as preseason practice began. “It’s my last time to do it with this group of guys.”
He was injured on the last play of the Gamecocks' season-opening loss to UNC. He completed 16 of 30 passes that day with a touchdown, but also threw two interceptions and sailed a pass over a wide-open Shi Smith that would have been the go-ahead score.
As he always did in every postgame press conference or Tuesday media gathering, Bentley took all the responsibility for the Gamecocks’ shortcomings and deflected any individual praise to his teammates. Despite only playing one game this season, Bentley finished third in career attempts, completions and touchdowns and fourth in passing yards. The names he’s behind (Todd Ellis, Steve Taneyhill, Stephen Garcia, Connor Shaw) are regarded as USC legends.
Bentley didn’t return messages seeking further comment and let his tweeted statement say everything. His teammates, coaches and administrators wished him well.
Once he was hurt, Bentley’s season was always expected to end this way. But he’ll have another chance in another uniform next year to be the quarterback USC always thought he could be.