COLUMBIA — It was an unusual journey for Jake Bentley, and it didn’t end once the quarterback got to campus in June. His arrival at South Carolina was so unexpected, there wasn’t a scholarship yet available for him.
“He walked on in the summer,” Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp said of his new starter behind center. “I was able to put him on scholarship in August.”
The lack of readiness was understandable, given Muschamp had never been involved with a player completing high school after his junior season to enroll in college a full year early. Yet that’s just what Bentley’s father, USC running backs coach Bobby Bentley, broached to the head coach about a month after Jake committed to the Gamecocks in March.
It wasn’t completely unheard of — former Southern California quarterback John David Booty made headlines when he did just that in 2003. But it was certainly all new for the Gamecocks when Bentley, whom USC had been recruiting for its 2017 signing class, finished at Opelika (Ala) High School a year early.
“He was actually finished with all of his classes. So he was going to go into his senior year having completed everything to be admitted for college,” Muschamp said. “... It was all cleared through the NCAA. It took about a month to get all of that done.”
Bentley made his first start last weekend, tossing two touchdown passes in a 34-28 victory over Massachusetts that snapped a three-game losing skid for the Gamecocks (3-4, 1-4 SEC). He’ll face a different level of opponent Saturday, when No. 18 Tennessee (5-2, 2-2) visits Williams-Brice Stadium for a 7:15 p.m. game.
“I thought he did a very, very good job. He was animated. He has great intensity, and can throw the football,” Volunteers head coach Butch Jones told reporters in Knoxville. “I thought he managed the offense very well. He took care of the football. He looked like a mature individual. He looked like a mature competitor that’s been there. You know his pedigree and his upbringing and all that, and I was very impressed with the way he handled the game.”
Bentley’s father Bobby was a longtime high school coach in the Spartanburg area, and he has older brothers who have played quarterback at Rutgers and Old Dominion. When Muschamp hired the elder Bentley, who had been an offensive analyst on the same Auburn staff where Muschamp had been defensive coordinator, it left the Bentley family facing a question — what to do about Jake’s senior year of high school.
He had already changed high schools once, moving from Brynes to Opelika when his father took the Auburn position, and he didn’t want to change again. The possibility was broached of Jake remaining in Alabama while the rest of the family moved to South Carolina, and living his senior year with Opelika head coach Brian Blackmon. Nothing seemed ideal.
“It’s a very close-knit family, and Bobby and (his wife) Paulette, they didn’t want Jake to stay in Alabama,” Muschamp said. “They wanted him to be here. And that’s really how the conversation started. They're a close-knit family, and they wanted to be together, and it just so happens it worked out that way.”
And in the process, South Carolina landed a four-star quarterback prospect a year ahead of schedule. Although he split the role last week with fellow freshman Brandon McIlwain, who entered in short-yardage situations, it was Bentley who brought a needed spark to the USC offense. Not bad for someone who should be a senior in high school — and walked on.
“He’s played at a high level. I remember watching him out of high school, and was very impressed as well. This is an individual who manages the football game, has a lively arm, can make all the throws and is playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Tennessee’s Jones said.
“But also, in order to be the starting quarterback, no matter who it is, the first job is to win the respect of your teammates. And what you see on video is the respect of his teammates, along with McIlwain as well. Their players believe in them, because you can tell by the way they rally around them.”
— Norman James Franks Sr., McIlwain’s maternal grandfather, died Monday according to Chalena McIlwain, Brandon’s mother. Franks had suffered several strokes in recent years, and been in a coma since a fall five weeks ago. Chalena McIlwain grew up in Charleston and graduated from Middleton High School. Services for Franks will be held Wednesday in Randallstown, Md.
— Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara will not be available against USC, Jones said. Kamara, who injured his knee Oct. 15 against Alabama, will be out a few more weeks. The Vols will have center Dylan Wiseman (concussion) back, and Jones was optimistic linebacker Darrin Kirkland (ankle) would play.