COLUMBIA — South Carolina needed some excitement re-injected into its downtrodden football program.
Nothing excites more than a new quarterback.
Coach Will Muschamp confirmed Tuesday what was known the day before — starting QB Jake Bentley was hurt in Saturday’s 24-20 loss to North Carolina, putting true freshman Ryan Hilinski into the lineup. Hilinski will debut Saturday against Charleston Southern and could be the starter the rest of the season.
“Jake Bentley has a mid-foot sprain, which is commonly referred to as a Lisfranc,” Muschamp said. “He’s still under medical evaluation. I’ll know more in the latter part of the week exactly whether he needs surgery.
“If he needs surgery, it’s going to be a season-ending injury. If not, it’s 6-8 weeks.”
Gamecock fans were rightfully howling about their team’s abysmal performance against the Tar Heels, USC playing timidly on offense and unable to tackle on defense. Bentley, the senior who was hoping to shelve his inconsistent reputation by having a flawless final season, tossed two interceptions and overthrew receiver Shi Smith on what would have been the go-ahead touchdown.
Bentley drew much of the scorn from the Twitter tough guys afterward, many demanding and some wondering if it was time to give somebody else a chance. That somebody is Hilinski.
Bentley was swarmed by two UNC defenders on the Gamecocks’ final offensive play, awkwardly stretching his right leg on the hit.
“He told (trainer Clint Haggard) he was sore after the game was over. Clint came into my office about 10:30 or 11 (Sunday morning) and said, ‘I think there’s going to be an issue with Jake,’” Muschamp said. “So we got an MRI. We didn’t get the results back until Sunday night.”
Hilinski came to USC with a basket full of high school awards and is one of the highest-rated recruits of the Muschamp era. He went through spring practice and played well in the spring game, but has never thrown a pass in a college game.
He’ll get his chance Saturday and moving forward with Bentley, at the very least, out for the next five games. North Charleston’s Dakereon Joyner never stopped repping at quarterback despite losing the backup job to Hilinski, and also repped at receiver, where he played against UNC.
Joyner will continue to play receiver and be the No. 2 QB, Muschamp saying Tuesday that Joyner will also play some quarterback against CSU. Jay Urich, who switched to receiver in the spring, will stay there but also be the No. 3 QB.
The Gamecocks (0-1) needed to make changes but losing a 33-game starter will be a major shift for them, despite Bentley’s struggles. Hilinski will be playing behind a reworked offensive line following the UNC game, and there’s simply no telling what a player will do in his first game.
USC is confident that the rookie will handle it well.
“He’s a great quarterback, he knows how to throw the ball. The coaches trust in him, so that’s why he’s going to start this week,” cornerback Israel Mukuamu said. “He came here to compete and now’s his time to compete.”
“He’s a great guy. I think we all know he can throw the ball,” Joyner said. “He’s a smart kid and I have full confidence in him.”
A noon game against an FCS opponent was likely to be sparsely attended, and after the UNC game and the threat of Hurricane Dorian off the coast, Saturday could have set a record for low attendance. Yet fans on social media seem to be energized by the quarterback news.
The most popular player on the team is always the backup quarterback. USC’s former backup is now living a perfect life, which stays intact as long as he plays well.
Hilinski has already seen the trail blazed. The Gamecocks’ last true freshman to start at quarterback was Bentley.
Receiver OrTre Smith (shoulder) and cornerback A.J. Turner (shoulder) are expected to play, while defensive end Aaron Sterling (knee) had some swelling but should be OK. Receiver Randrecous Davis (ankle) and safety J.T. Ibe (pectoral) are also expected to play.
Donell Stanley, who played center last year before moving to left guard this year, is back at center. Redshirt freshman Hank Manos was overwhelmed at center against UNC.
Jordan Rhodes will take Stanley’s place at left guard while Eric Douglas and Jovaughn Gwyn continue to rep at right guard.