SEC Spring IQ: Bentley gives Muschamp a big piece

Matt Lowe

March 01, 2017 at 1:23 am.

Oct 22, 2016; Columbia, SC, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks quarterback Jake Bentley (4) looks to pass against the Massachusetts Minutemen in the second quarter at Williams-Brice Stadium. Photo Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 22, 2016; Columbia, SC, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks quarterback Jake Bentley (4) looks to pass against the Massachusetts Minutemen in the second quarter at Williams-Brice Stadium. Photo Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

South Carolina Gamecocks

2016 Record: 6-7 overall, 3-5 SEC

Offensive Coordinator: Kurt Roper

Defensive Coordinator: Travaris Robinson

Returning starters: 16: 10 offense, 6 defense

Players to Watch: QB Jake Bentley, RB Rico Dowdle, WR Deebo Samuel, OL Zack Bailey, LB Skai Moore, DB Chris Lammons, DB D.J. Smith

Keep making strides

Head coach Will Muschamp’s first season at South Carolina was basically a tale of two halves.

After a narrow 13-10 victory over Vanderbilt in the season opener, the Gamecocks dropped four of their next five games to fall to 2-4 on the season.

But when Muschamp made the decision to insert freshman quarterback Jake Bentley as the team’s starting quarterback during the team’s bye week prior to an October matchup with UMass, USC began to make strides.

Bentley, who graduated Opelika High School (Opelika, Ala.) early and enrolled at South Carolina last summer shortly after his father, Bobby Bentley — a highly successful high school coach (four state titles at Byrnes High) in the Palmetto State — was named the team’s running backs coach after a stint at Auburn as an offensive analyst for two seasons, instantly gave the Gamecocks stability, and a leader, at a position in dire need of a playmaker. He also gave USC a cornerstone to build around moving forward after leading the Gamecocks to a 4-3 record in their final seven games, including a 24-21 upset of No. 18 Tennessee.

“We see it every day; he’s a natural born leader,” tight end Hayden Hurst said after Bentley passed for 201 yards and two touchdowns in his first career start, a 34-28 win over the Minutemen.  “He’s well beyond his years at 18 years old. I’m very impressed with what he is able to do on a daily basis.”

“He just stays ready,” Hurst added. “When he was labeled a third-string quarterback, he continued to work every day. He continued to watch film with Coach Roper, and he has done a heck of a job preparing him to get ready to play.”

In seven starts last year as a true freshman, Bentley completed 125 of 190 passes for 1,420 yards and nine touchdowns — with only four interceptions.

In the thrilling 46-39 overtime loss to South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl, he completed 32 of 43 passes for a career-high 390 yards passing and three touchdowns. The completion and passing yardage totals established new South Carolina bowl-game records.

The performance also exemplified how far Bentley had come due to a tireless work ethic and a skill set that could enable him to be one of the SEC’s best QBs in 2017.

“Work is not going to be an issue for Jake — he’s going to work,” Muschamp said about his QB in late February. “That’s one of the great talents he has. He’s a guy that you have to continue to work on with his timing and the fundamentals and techniques of the position — and obviously his understanding of the game. The game is going to continue to slow down for a guy like him. I’m never concerned with his work ethic and how he’s going to positively affect the guys around him.”

Entering spring ball —with Bentley entrenched as the team’s starting quarterback —  South Carolina seems to be moving in the right direction on offense as it pertains to the skill positions.

It boasts one of the SEC’s rising stars in Bentley. And it possesses a talented group of runners and pass catchers, led by sophomore tailbacks Rico Dowdel and A.J. Turner, junior wide receiver Deebo Samuel and Hurst, now a junior.

Dowdell and Turner ranked one-two on the team in rushing last season; Samuel is an explosive wideout who tied a school record with 14 receptions (190 yards) in the loss to the Bulls; and Hurst finished the 2016 season with a school-record 616 receiving yards by a tight end, which surpassed Danny Smith, who had 576 receiving yards in 1987.

“It’s great to have Hayden (Hurst) back after such a record-breaking season at tight end as for as receptions are concerned,” Muschamp said. “We’re really excited to see him back, but I think we have really good depth with quality players at that position. K.C. Crosby, Jacob August and Kyle Markway is back healthy. Kiel Pollard is someone who has had a fantastic offseason – I have been really proud of how he’s continued to evolve.”

Two key areas that will need to be shored up for the Gamecocks this spring are always very important ones: the offensive and defensive lines. The defense, as a whole, must also make improvements after allowing 411.9 yards and 26.5 points per game in 2016.

Along the O-line, the Gamecocks need to find a capable replacement for left tackle Mason Zandi, who protected Bentley’s blind side. Defensively, more pass rushers need to emerge after the losses of starting defensive ends Darius English (9 sacks, 13 tackles for loss) and Marquavius Lewis (1.5 sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss).

On a lighter note, South Carolina returns tackling machine Skai Moore, who missed all of last season due to a neck injury, at linebacker, but the Gamecocks must fill the void of departed seniors T.J. Holloman and Jonathan Walton, who ranked third and fourth on the team in tackles respectively.

“Offensively, we need to find out the best five, six, seven or eight and who those guys are,” Muschamp said. “Obviously the left tackle has a void there with Mason (Zandi) graduating. We’ll start the spring with Malik Young and Sadarius Hutcherson playing left tackle.

“As far as the other tackle positions, Zack Bailey and Blake Camper are two guys that we feel like can sit at the right tackle position and play productive football for us. D.J. Park is a guy who can always bump outside and play, which he has before.

“Inside, D.J. Park can play both spots, but Corey Helms, Alan Knott, Donell Stanley are back, which is good. Trey Derouen, Christian Pellage – all of those guys. Chandler Farrell will back up at center for us, and there’s Pika (Leota) and Will Putnam. So we have good depth on the offensive line this spring in order to rep and improve our physicality.”

“Defensively, Taylor (Stallworth) and Ulric (Jones) are going to be two senior inside players,” Muschamp added. “We really need these next three guys, Stephon Taylor, Kobe Smith and Aaron Thompson, to really step up. They’ve been through a redshirt season, and these guys need to take a step forward for us defensively. A part of our success is going to be how those three guys continue to come along.

“Keir Thomas can swing and play both inside and outside. Dante Sawyer will play in, but he’s also I guy we need to rush inside and get more speed on the field. “Shameik Blackshear has had a good offseason along with Dexter Wideman and Griffin Gentry. Dennis Wonnum and Danny Fennell will play the Buck (versatile, pass-rushing position). Dennis has had a good offseason – he’s up to 250 so I’m excited about where he is.”

Two other positions that must be addressed by the South Carolina coaching staff will be on special teams. All-time scoring leader Elliott Fry is now longer the team’s placekicker after an outstanding career. Punter Sean Kelly also moved on, as has reliable deep snapper Drew Williams.

Redshirt freshman Alexander Woznick will likely get the first opportunity to nail down the placekicking duties. Sophomores Michael Almond and Joseph Charlton will battle it out for the open punter position.

“We have a lot of questions in the specialists area,” Muschamp said. “Alex Wozniak is a guy that we feel like has the ability to be our placekicker. He and Michael Almond will battle for that job. Joseph Charlton and Michael will be the swing guys to punt. We have to answer some questions there.

“As snappers are concerned, Nick McGriff, Ben Asbury, and Harrison Freeman are three guys that we need. Drew (Williams) is a huge asset for us as far as in coverage and reliability with the snap. We need to make some strides as far as special teams are concerned.”

As Muschamp enters Year Two of his tenure at South Carolina, he still has some holes to fill on his team. That can’t be debated.

But with Bentley at quarterback and a quality set of skill players returning, the Gamecocks should be able to score. However, they, like a lot of other teams in the SEC, will have to rely on a major improvement on defense to move into the upper echelon of the league.

And that’s where the hiring of Muschamp could start to pay big dividends following the team’s success at finding a game-changing QB one year previously.