In the Southeastern Conference, life comes at you fast. No one knows that lesson quite as well as former Opelika High School quarterback Jake Bentley.
South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp said the plan was to redshirt Bentley, who played his sophomore and junior seasons at Opelika before graduating early to enroll at South Carolina in 2016. After five games with several lackluster performances offensively, the first-year Gamecocks coach gave the quarterback duties to Bentley, then only 18 years old.
Muschamp admitted the decision wasn’t an easy one.
“I saw a guy go from August to September into October and continue to improve his skill set. We were struggling offensively, and that was not on a quarterback position but multiple areas,” Muschamp said. “I called (athletic director Ray Tanner). I said, ‘Am I wrong to think we need to play a high school senior?’ He said, ‘Absolutely not. If your gut tells you to do it, do it.’ So I went into the office Monday morning, I told (offensive coordinator Kurt Roper) we're going to open it up. Kurt agreed with that, and we moved forward from there.”
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Bentley did his best to make Muschamp’s decision the right one. He became the first South Carolina true freshman quarterback to win his first three starts since 1992 and ended the season with 1,420 passing yards and nine touchdowns. He broke three of the school’s bowl game records with 32 completions, 390 passing yards and 381 yards of total offense in the Birmingham Bowl against South Florida.
Bentley signed up for the fast track in becoming a Gamecock, but how his freshman season played out was certainly a surprise.
“It feels like I just left high school, and now I’m thrown into the fire,” Bentley said. “It was definitely a quick transition.”
Looking back at his time at Opelika, Bentley pointed to two people being huge influences on his progression. The first was Opelika head coach Brian Blackmon, who is now an offensive analyst at Auburn. The second was Auburn assistant strength coach Anthony Kincy, who Bentley got to know while his father Bobby, the current South Carolina running backs coach, was an offensive analyst with the Tigers.
Bentley said just about everyone from the Opelika area was at the Birmingham Bowl, which made the experience that much more special.
“My time at Opelika was great,” Bentley said. “They really embraced me when I moved down there, and I’m grateful for them.”
While Bentley hasn’t forgotten his time as an Opelika Bulldog, his attention now sits squarely on the Gamecocks. He’s quickly became a leader within the South Carolina program and was named the 2016 team’s co-MVP alongside receiver Deebo Samuel.
His debut to the college ranks was a whirlwind, but after surviving and thriving, Bentley seems to have set himself up well for the long run.
“I’ve gotten more comfortable with everything, from the way classes work to the workouts in the morning,” Bentley said. “Everything has become more of a routine now. It’s all more comfortable, and I’m more comfortable in our offense. I’m just trying to get better every day because at the end of the day that’s all we can do.”
Jordan D. Hill: 770-894-9818, @lesports