When preseason practice begins Friday, quarterback Jake Bentley will try to soak up every bit of it and savor every moment of his final training camp as South Carolina’s starting quarterback.
As he prepares for what he and his teammates hope will be a big senior season, Bentley wants to make sure he absorbs and relishes the whole experience.
“I think the biggest thing is not taking anything for granted,” Bentley said during Media Day Thursday. “Not taking for granted the time that I get to be with the guys. When practice is hard and it’s hot and it’s tough to keep going, it’s remembering it’s the last time to do it with this group of guys. Just having that mindset through everything.”
Head coach Will Muschamp will have his deepest and most talented team at South Carolina this season and it’s led by Bentley, who has started 32 of the 39 games since the beginning of his freshman season in 2016. If the Gamecocks are to succeed against the nation’s toughest schedule, Bentley will need to have a big senior season.
“I’m excited about the experience he has, I’m excited about his talent level, I’m excited about his competitive edge, I’m excited about his leadership ability,” Muschamp said of his four-year starter. “I’m excited about his senior year."
After leading South Carolina to a 9-4 record as a sophomore, Bentley threw for 3,171 yards and 27 touchdowns last season. He also threw 14 interceptions, however, including six in the red zone. Taking better care of the ball and making smarter decisions is his biggest challenge this season.
“The big thing is consistency and just trying to bring the same mindset and the same game each and every week and each day at practice,” he said.
Former Ole Miss quarterback David Morris, who works with Bentley at Quarterback Country, a QB training and development center in Mobile, Ala., believes Bentley is poised to have a career year this season.
“I think he is better than he has ever been above the neck and he’s better than he’s ever been physically, mechanically with his feet, having a great plan for the year and how to be consistent and learn from past years," Morris said. "I would say that his confidence is better than it’s ever been and I would say that’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about where he is. I feel like he knows there’s another level to his game, and I think he’s going to be there this year."
Bentley has the talent around him to take his game to the next level and boost an offense that averaged 30 points and 424 yards per game last season. Like Muschamp, he believes South Carolina has its best team in the past four years, one that should reach a fourth straight bowl game and could challenge Georgia and Florida in the SEC East.
“I think without a doubt this is our deepest team and our best team as far as guys who are fully invested in what we want to do here,” he said. “Just thinking about where we were our freshman year and how we’ve got it going in the right direction and how guys have really bought into what Coach Muschamp is doing for us.”
It all starts with the team’s 21 seniors, a group that has been with Muschamp since his arrival and has combined to make more than 200 starts. Three players — Bentley, wide receiver Bryan Edwards and running back Rico Dowdle — have started since their freshman season, while others like offensive lineman Donell Stanley, linebacker T.J. Brunson and defensive end D.J. Wonnum are three-year starters.
The whole group has bought into Muschamp’s program and helped turn around a team that was 3-9 in Steve Spurrier’s final season.
“Really the ownership is a huge part of leadership,” Muschamp said. “The ownership they have taken on our team, to hold themselves … but also their teammates accountable to a championship standard. That's what you've got to have to be successful. Those are two things I think we've vastly improved on.”
“I think it’s some of the best [leadership] since I have been here and some of the best I have ever seen,” Bentley said. “They are leaders that you can tell love football and when they got here maybe didn’t have the examples other people had at other programs and kinda had to build their own brand of leadership. I think we have done a great job of getting the program turned in the right direction.”