COLUMBIA — The life of a backup quarterback is always wanting to play and believing the only thing separating yourself from constant applause is a chance to play.
As South Carolina's preseason camp hits one week of practices, competition continues among Dakereon Joyner and Ryan Hilinski to see who will be called on to replace Jake Bentley if the starter goes down. Coach Will Muschamp said at SEC Media Days in July that he’d like to have a No. 2 QB after 15 or so practices; he reversed course a week ago and said there’s no timeline.
Whatever the answer is, the Gamecocks have to find it. Joyner’s been around a year and is a top-notch athlete who can make plays with his feet that Hilinski may not be able to. Hilinski toted a bushel of awards with him to campus, all due to his powerful right arm.
“At this point, I approach every day the same. I’m a very confident guy, I go out and compete every single day,” said Joyner, the North Charleston wunderkind who threw for all kinds of numbers at Fort Dorchester High. “For me, it’s me being the best teammate possible, the best quarterback possible I can be for the team.”
Joyner knows the talented group in the QB room as well as anyone, and he knows Bentley's decision to return for his senior year probably means another year on the sideline.
But Joyner knew the situation when he committed to USC and was prepared to wait, memorably quipping after a solid spring game that if he didn’t want to play QB for the Gamecocks, he could have gone to Alabama or Clemson. Four months later when asked if offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon had a specialized package for him in which he didn't line up at quarterback, Joyner chose not to comment.
“Both guys have shown some flashes, done some really good things. We got to get rid of the football,” Muschamp said Tuesday. “Couple of move-the-ball situations today, we’re holding onto the ball too much at that position.”
USC will name a backup at some point before the Aug. 31 season opener, but nobody can say if the winner will actually see the field. Bentley missed one game last year after injuring his knee in a loss at Kentucky.
Lauded as the Gamecocks' savior when he took over in 2016 and engineered a comeback from a 2-4 start to a bowl game, Bentley has been equally cheered and jeered. He’ll probably walk away from USC after this season with every notable passing record, yet if he doesn’t beat one of the Top 25 teams on the schedule this year, a glowing legacy won’t remain.
The Gamecocks' most explosive playmaker is gone, and if USC can truly replace him, it will have to be a group effort.
The worst thing that could have happened to Bentley happened last year, not only getting injured but watching his backup play well in the game he missed. Michael Scarnecchia played the game of his life in the only chance he was ever going to have, directing the Gamecocks to a win over Missouri.
Returning to his spot the next game, Bentley heard the boos when he threw an interception in the end zone against Texas A&M. But he bounced back in that game and played much better until the final regular-season game of the season.
Maybe being pushed, knowing Scarnecchia had done so well against Missouri and was right there ready to come in, helped Bentley play better. Maybe the same thing happens this year when or if Joyner or Hilinski get their shot.
"Production. Taking care of the football. Orchestrating our offense,” Muschamp said, ticking off what he wants from his quarterback. “Not having silly issues as far as procedural issues when we get on the field, which we didn’t in spring. Whoever is the most productive player at the position."
Joyner and Hilinski each have minuscule sample sizes on judging who could be the most productive QB behind Bentley, at least in the public eye. Hilinski’s only action has been in the spring game; Joyner’s in two spring games and a few snaps against Chattanooga last year.
South Carolina's tight ends had a fine season last year but want to do more in 2019.
Joyner’s been around longer, and that may be the edge he needs. “I think it helps me a lot. I look at myself, over the course of a year I’ve grown so much, the game has slowed down for me,” he said. “I’m going to be the best that I can be, being confident and just ballin.’”
He and Hilinski want to play. One or both will eventually get that opportunity, but only one gets it first.