COLUMBIA — So many questions.
Give up a final year of high school, which ranks high on the list of the best times in the life of an elite athlete? Join a quarterback field crowded with four other contenders already? Enroll early not for 2017 spring practice, but for the 2016 season, and play catch-up to other players who almost certainly have a better grasp of the system?
So many questions here, all of them surrounding Jake Bentley’s bombshell Wednesday morning. The four-star quarterback prospect, who committed to South Carolina less than two weeks ago, plans to graduate a year early from his high school in Opelika, Ala., and be on USC’s campus this summer.
That’s a lot to digest, and on many levels. Since head coach Will Muschamp is clearly on board with this plan, does this say something about his trust (or lack thereof) in the USC quarterbacks already on the roster? Can South Carolina hold on to this many signal-callers, three of whom are within one year of each other? And is Bentley risking a season standing on the sideline at USC just to get to college early?
Bentley is a coach’s son, and by all accounts a very smart kid, so you want to give him the benefit of the doubt. The fact that his dad Bobby is an assistant at USC certainly strengthened the chances Jake would land in Columbia. And judging by every recruiting service, the younger Bentley is a high-impact, pro-style quarterback with all the physical tools to flourish in college.
But skipping an entire year of high school is not something we see athletes do every day. It’s one thing for Brandon McIlwain, who ordinarily would be in his final semester of high school, to graduate half a year early to be on campus for spring practice. If a kid can pull it off, that’s a fairly common step that gives him a huge advantage given that he should have the system down by preseason camp.
It was reasonable to think Bentley would take the same approach, and arrive on campus next spring with the intention of preparing himself to vie for the starting job in 2017. Now, can he learn, and get comfortable in, the USC system over the course of summer workouts and preseason camp? Enough so to be a legitimate contender for the starting job against Vanderbilt on Sept. 1? That would indeed be a whirlwind of progress for a player who would ordinarily be a senior in high school.
You have to think that there’s a plan here, that Bentley’s father and Muschamp wouldn’t OK this unless they had a firm grasp of where it’s headed. Who knows, maybe the Bentleys have been running USC plays in the backyard for weeks now, and the kid knows the system as well as anyone. Coaches can’t comment on prospects until they sign a Letter of Intent, so for now we can only wonder if Bentley can legitimately figure into the quarterback race for 2016, or if there are plans to redshirt him and turn him loose in 2017.
Of course, you don’t usually sign the No. 2 pro-style quarterback available nationally (according to ESPN’s rankings) just to redshirt him. This August, USC could well have a freshman in Bentley, a freshman in McIlwain, and a sophomore in Nunez all competing for the same job. They’re all young, and talented, and have plenty of eligibility left. Keeping them all content and at USC would be a feat indeed.
But that’s the situation Muschamp and his coaches will likely face, if Bentley realizes his potential as a (very) true freshman and wedges his way into a quarterback competition that’s teeming with contenders already. Spring practice, which ends Saturday, was supposed to shed a little clarity on this USC quarterback race. Looks like it’s just getting started.