COLUMBIA — Jake Bentley will join the quarterback competition at South Carolina not in 2017, but this summer.
The four-star prospect from Opelika, Ala., dropped that bombshell Wednesday morning, when he announced on Twitter that he would graduate from high school a year early and join the Gamecocks this summer. That means Bentley will be in garnet and black this fall, adding another candidate to USC’s already-crowded quarterback field.
“It’s the assumption of everyone in the world who sees something like this that they need help at quarterback. That they’re not overly confident with the guys they have right now,” said Mike Farrell, national recruiting director at Rivals. “That’s the message I would take. If I was a quarterback at South Carolina right now, and I woke up to this information, I’d be like, ‘Uh-oh.’ Because this just doesn’t happen.”
Bentley is the son of Gamecocks running backs coach Bobby Bentley, the longtime head coach at Byrnes High School who worked at Auburn before following current USC head coach Will Muschamp to Columbia. Jake is rated between the second- and 13th-best pro-style quarterback prospect nationally, depending on the recruiting service. Coaches cannot comment on prospects until they sign a National Letter of Intent, but both USC and Muschamp are on board with the decision.
“After doing some research and confirming with my academic counselors, I will be able to graduate this year. Because I can graduate early, I will be joining the excitement of Gamecock football this summer,” Bentley wrote.
“I understand the concerns, and I am sure I will miss Friday nights, my friends, and most importantly my teammates (and) coaches. ... But God has prepared me for this moment, and I am ready to take the next step in my life.”
How often does a player forego his entire senior year to enter college? “Never happens. Never ever,” Farrell said. “I can’t say never, but in the 18 years I’ve covered this, it’s happened less than five times. I can count on one hand how many times this has actually occurred. So this is extremely stunning.”
Brian Blackmon, Bentley’s head coach at Opelika High School, said the quarterback did not want to change high schools, or remain behind in Alabama while his family moved to South Carolina.
“It looked like it would be tougher and tougher for him to stay behind and play his high school year here with the rest of his family being gone,” Blackmon said. “And at that point it became, ‘I don’t want to play for another high school.’ You’d be looking at a third high school for the kid. His ninth-grade year he was at Byrnes, and he was here for his 10th and 11th grades. So I think it just boiled down to not wanting to do that.”
The decision has also been cleared by the NCAA and the SEC, Blackmon said. He added that Bentley, 18, was already on track to graduate early.
“We had been talking about it for a while,” Blackmon said. “But in order for it to really take place, you had a lot of things that had to go right. The NCAA and the SEC had to clear it. The University of South Carolina had to clear it. It just had to work out right for him. It’s been one of those things that’s been in the works for a while, but there wasn’t a finalization to it until those things came together.”
USC already has one four-star quarterback who joined the roster early: Brandon McIlwain enrolled in January and is participating in spring practice, where he has been taking snaps with the No. 1 offense and is positioned to be the leading candidate for the starting job in preseason camp.
But suddenly, he has more competition. USC’s quarterback race also includes rising senior Perry Orth, who started eight games last season and was sidelined in spring practice with a broken collarbone; rising junior Connor Mitch, who started two games last season; and rising sophomore Lorenzo Nunez, who started two games last season and has been limited by a hyperextended knee in the spring.
This summer, joining that list will be Bentley, a prototypical pro-style quarterback at 6-4 and 215 pounds, who received dozens of offers after passing for 2,800 yards and 28 touchdowns as a high school junior. Bentley committed to South Carolina on March 24.
Farrell said Bentley possesses a strong arm and good size for a quarterback. But as the son of a coach, he’s used to running an advanced offense and is “going to pick things up quickly,” which may be his biggest asset.
“It’s much more important to be mentally ready than to be physically ready to play quarterback in college as a true freshman,” Farrell said. “So he’s got that. And I’m sure that’s one of the things they’re probably saying — we’re implementing our offense, and it might just so happen that the son of one of our coaches could pick this up a lot quicker than the guys we have. But that’s all speculation.”
Whether Bentley will pick up the offense in time to emerge as a candidate for the starting job remains to be seen. All the other candidates have the advantage of taking part in spring practice, which concludes with Saturday’s noon spring game. This summer, Bentley joins the mix.
“I don’t think he’d even consider the situation if it wasn’t his desire to go in and start,” said Blackmon. “He knows the other guys have a tremendous head start on him in spring ball. But he’s going to go in there, work his tail off, and compete to be that guy. I think if he’s making this jump, he’s making it because he feels he’s capable of competing at that level.”