By Josh Hyber/Staff writer
Photos by Kenny Moss/Opelika-Auburn News and Jenny Dilworth
OPELIKA, Ala. — The night before every football game Jake Bentley plays in — sometime during the 90 minutes of his REM sleep — he envisions the gamut of game situations. The snaps, the reads, the completions and the touchdowns.
Only if something goes off script will he open his eyes. He’ll then delete the memory and close his eyes again, the author of his own football dream.
“The more you visualize, the more you close your eyes and really think about each route, each play you’re going to run, when you get on the field, you’ve already run it in your head,” the 20-year-old quarterback says. “So it’s not the first time you’re doing it. You’ve got practice, but you’ve also got those mental reps.
“Your brain doesn’t know what’s reality and what’s not. I don’t know if that’s true if you ask any scientists, but that’s what I think.”
South Carolina’s starting quarterback began the ritual during his time at Byrnes (S.C.) High School but put it into effect for the first time as a starter at Opelika (Ala.) High School, where he spent two seasons with the Bulldogs before enrolling early in Columbia.
Bentley arrived in northeast Alabama in the summer of 2014 the son of a newly-hired Auburn assistant — Bobby Bentley, now South Carolina’s running backs coach — and left the son of a community that boasts No. 19’s football exploits and acumen in the classroom.
Just spending a day in Opelika, it’s apparent the touch Bentley has left on the town. Or, as Opelika assistant Jonathan Chandler calls it: The Jake Bentley Effect.
“Jake was a tremendous competitor that truly understood what it meant to be a quarterback,” Brian Blackmon, Bentley’s head coach at Opelika, said. “He left a legacy of character, hard work and selfless sacrifice for his team.”
A glimpse of the future
If passing through Opelika — a town seven miles northeast of Auburn University — Bentley recommends Jefferson’s, a 30-table burger joint on S. Railroad Avenue. It’s a popular lunch hangout for the town’s who’s who, especially on this Monday in July.
Opelika head coach Erik Speakman, the school’s defensive coordinator when Bentley was on campus, chows down a black-and-blue burger and tells stories of the good-natured ribbing he and Bentley gave each other while competing at practice.
Mayor Gary Fuller walks by the table.
“Jake’s such a great young man,” he says. “We miss him.”
First and foremost, Bentley was a once-in-a-generation talent at Opelika. He led the Bulldogs (12-1) to an elite eight appearance in 2015 with a run-pass option offense similar to the one South Carolina will utilize this season under first-year Offensive Coordinator Bryan McClendon. He threw for 2,834 yards and 28 touchdowns that season, his lone as the OHS starter.
Opelika ran run-pass option plays about 60 percent of the time. Once the Bulldogs ran Boxer — a play named because the quarterback reads the box — six straight times, including on a Bentley touchdown pass, to cap a 31-30 comeback victory over rival Auburn High.
“We had thrown it a couple of times that game and completed it,” says JD Worth, who caught the winning score. “And it was open again. Jake saw it, pulled up and threw it.”
Bentley credits Blackmon and Chandler for “figuring it out early” and implementing RPOs into Opelika’s scheme before defenses had seen much film on it. “If you have a really smart quarterback like Jake, it wouldn’t be smart to not utilize it,” Speakman says. “He can sit and find the weak spots in a defense. That’s what RPO gives you.”
Speakman said his RPOs give quarterbacks, pre-snap, a passing option to both sides of the field and a run option. “You’re letting your quarterback decide, once everybody’s lined up, what he’s going to take out of those three,” he says. “Somebody like Jake really thrives with that.
“The [up-tempo offense] and RPO is right up his alley. He could probably go coach the whole offense right now … with an NFL arm.”
Chandler’s ears perk up when RPO gets mentioned.
“I like that you said it’s the new, trendy thing,” the coach says. “Because you look at high school, you look at the Philadelphia Eagles, they’re doing stuff, call it trendy, call it new, but it’s been around for 10 to 15 years. … We were doing a lot of that stuff. Still do it now a bunch.
“They’re so simple, yet they’re so complex. You have to spend a lot of time on it.”
But with Bentley, the son of a legendary high school coach, under center, it was relatively easy. Says Cade Blackmon, Brian’s son and one of Jake’s backups, “I remember sitting in meetings sometimes and thinking, ‘Jake, what are you even talking about?’”
“There’s no question we did things that were a little bit more complex than what we did the years before,” Chandler says. “We kind of put in some pre-snap and during-the-snap checks that Jake would operate.
“We call it having the eraser last or having the pencil last.”
Adds the coach, “Jake could pull the string back on some. He knew when to do those things at the right time.”
High character, big dreams
When Speakman walks a reporter into Brittney Cahela’s office, the coach tells the Opelika guidance counselor that he’s here to talk about Cahela’s favorite student.
“…. Jake Bentley?”
“Day one Jake came in and was just caring and compassionate and serious about his academics,” Cahela says. “He just draws people to him. He smiles. He’s friendly. He greets the kid in the hallway that not everybody would talk to. He’s just a special kid.”
It was in one of Cahela’s first meetings with the Bentley family that Jake told her he wanted to become a doctor. “He talked about different colleges and was looking at some pretty big-name schools for med school,” Cahela said. “He always had big dreams.”
Like many in the football-crazed town, Cahela knew Worth was in line to take over as the Opelika starting quarterback. But Bentley’s arrival didn’t create any issues or team friction.
“Jake and JD are still best friends,” Cahela said. “It was never a problem, never a rivalry. There was never any tension because Jake made it a team effort. Jake made it OK.
“He has character, and character that is not taught in a classroom. He’s just got that ‘Great Man’ character. If he ever becomes a coach or that NFL star one day, he’s the guy you’re happy your kids are looking up to.”
Lane Landers taught Bentley in her Algebra II class. “Jake was very, very intelligent. Very intelligent. Just overall someone who had a very contagious personality. Super polite,” Landers says. “Now competitive? Whoa. Major, major competitor. He did not want to mess up. He was mad at himself if he missed one. He always wanted to do better.”
Bentley was always willing to help and wasn’t afraid to ask questions. He set an example by doing what he was supposed to do.
“If he understood something a different way, which, coming from a different place, he saw things differently than maybe we’ve taught it,” Landers said. “But he would always be willing to say, ‘Hey, Mrs. Landers, I learned this another way, can I show them how to do it? And he would get up and show it.”
Don Shirley taught Bentley in AP U.S. History, the first advanced placement class Opelika offers. While Bentley struggled early on, like many sophomores in their first college-level class, he made sure the learning curve was a quick one.
“Most students don’t want to sit at the front, they try to sit in the back. I stand there, and he sat right there,” Shirley says, pointing to the first seat in the front row of the classroom. “He sat there for two years. That was his choice.
“He was the type of student you’d like to have a whole class full of.”
In 35 years, Bentley ranks among, not just the best athletes, but best students, Shirley has taught.
Rakavius Chambers, who now plays guard at Duke, was also in the class, and Shirley said the two football teammates often chatted about life after football. Both, he remembers, had dreams of becoming a doctor.
“I think, at one point, Jake was even thinking that way,” Shirley said. “You know, what if I get hurt? Football, I can’t play that for life. They always seemed to be talking and strategizing and planning for their future. Most students don’t do that.”
Bentley was a leader in class discussions, including a heated one about imperialism and the United States’ role in taking over the Philippines in the late 1800s.
“We do a lot of class discussion, and he wasn’t timid like a lot of the students about asking questions and participating,” Shirley said. “I think that came with his experience being a leader on the football team, because he was used to speaking up and being in charge.”
“He would challenge me a lot,” she says. “He would ask questions where I had to say, ‘I’m going to have to think about that for a few minutes.’ Because he was good at connecting things. He didn’t want to learn something because that’s the way you told him to do it. He wanted to make sense of things. The way he learned stuff and the way he connects things, it builds, and that’s why he’s so intelligent.”
She also fondly remembers Bentley the person.
It did not surprise her when Bentley received national attention last season for consoling Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano after the Gamecocks beat the Vols. After all, Landers saw him do just that after Opelika beat Central Phenix City.
“He made a straight beeline over there,” Landers remembers. “Just the character in him just shines. He doesn’t do that for show. That’s just his genuine personality.”
Said Chandler, “The things he did outside of football, even outside of school, you’re really drawn to a person like that. Just the gravity pulling you in that Jake Bentley has. It’s all based on relationships.
“The Bentleys eat, breathe and sleep football, but they also eat, breathe and sleep being good people.”
Bentley arrived in Opelika as a sophomore without a guaranteed starting spot at quarterback.
And he didn’t get one.
A quick backstory: Just by coincidence, Opelika played Byrnes in a 7-on-7 tournament in Hoover, Ala. in the summer of 2013. It was a few months before Bobby Bentley took the offensive analyst position at Auburn, and he came away impressed with Blackmon, his staff and how hard the Bulldogs competed.
Being told Jake wasn’t guaranteed the starting job only made that respect grow, and when deciding between Opelika and Auburn High School — which had a two-year starter of its own — the decision was a fairly easy one for Jake.
“I knew Jake was definitely good enough to come take my spot,” said Matthew Christian, a rising-senior quarterback at the time who led Opelika to the state title game as a freshman. “It made me a better player. He was always pushing me. We pushed each other and made us a lot better.”
“Going to Opelika, it was kind of refreshing to just be the new guy,” Bentley said. “Being the guy that no one really knew. I felt like I had to kind of prove myself.”
It didn’t take long.
Worth watched highlight tapes of his future teammate and was immediately impressed. Said Bentley’s future go-to receiver, “I was like, ‘Good lord, this kid’s already a five-star and he hasn’t even played a down of football yet.’”
Said Cade Blackmon, Brian’s son, “The dude was crazy good. He could sling it. I remember thinking, ‘This kid’s a freshman in high school? He’s got a rocket for an arm.’”
Speakman remembers walking out of the team’s indoor facility on the first day of preseason practice in 2014 and seeing a ball drop down from the sky several yards in front of him.
“Who punted that?” Speakman asked.
He was shocked by the response.
“That’s the new kid throwing a post route.”
“It gets higher every year,” Speakman said. “I tell everybody now it was thrown over the lights.”
Christian led the Bulldogs to the sweet 16 that season, though Bentley came in as a change-of-pace quarterback about five or six plays a game. He also dominated practices.
“There were a lot of times Jake threw balls you couldn’t defend,” Speakman said. “Our kids would get really frustrated.”
“Look,” he would tell them. “The good thing is he plays for us on Friday.”
If the Legend of Jake Bentley had begun, it skyrocketed the next year, especially after the Week 2 win over Auburn. Bentley was also Opelika’s punter — and a first-team all-state punter at that. (“Not because he was a punter,” Chandler corrects. “He just had a really strong leg.”)
If opponents lined up one return man, Bentley could read the play as a quarterback and treat the return man like a single-high safety. Early in the Auburn game, he did just that.
“Jake catches the snap, looks the punt returner safety off to the right and pulls the ball down and chucks it to our gunner,” Chandler remembers. “He was wide open. Jake throws a missile to our gunner for a touchdown.”
“We talked about it throughout practice all year,” Bentley said. “It was awesome to do it against our crosstown rival. It was supposed to go to the right, but it actually didn’t work out like we thought. I went to go run it and saw a guy open and launched it.”
The week before, Opelika scored 28 points before halftime in Bentley’s first start, a 34-20 road win over Hillcrest.
“Don’t score so fast,” Speakman remembers telling Blackmon. “I’m over here trying to make adjustments on defense and I turn around and you’ve already scored.”
That was Jake Bentley.
“It’s not that Jake was different,” Chandler said. “It’s that Jake was a difference maker.”
“His ability and his calmness, everybody was in awe of him,” said Shirley, who helped work the gate on Friday nights. “My guess is that he’s going to play pro ball.”
“The bigger the game, the bigger he played,” Speakman says. “The Central Phenix City game that year, he threw a ball that we still have yet to figure out how it was caught. And the DB, John Broussard, plays at Auburn. It wasn’t like he threw it against just anybody.
“There was not a throw he didn’t think he could make. Mentally he knew the game, and physically he was way ahead of everybody else.”
But Bentley couldn’t get away with everything against 6A teams in Alabama. He did throw nine interceptions as a junior.
“But then again, that’s also the mentality that makes Jake great,” Speakman says. “That’s something that makes him the exciting player he is. He thrives on trying to do the impossible. He’s not afraid to fail. Nothing scares him on the football field.”
When Bentley announced he would forego his senior season at Opelika to enroll at South Carolina, Cade Blackmon had a message for his dad: I’m getting Jake’s locker.
“Jake was an idol for me,” says Blackmon, now the Bulldogs’ starter. “As close of friends as we were, that was the locker I wanted to be in. I wear it with a sense of pride. Other people may think it’s just a locker, but to me it represents two and a half years of friendship and bonds through football. That all started in the locker room.”
In the locker room and the film room.
Bentley spent hours with Brian and Cade Blackmon watching tape and dissecting defenses. Cade learned from Jake his habit of watching film late at night. How to encourage teammates. How to play attention to details and “control the atmosphere.” How to always keep his energy up, because teammates feed off it.
Nowadays, the televisions at Jefferson’s not only play Auburn and Alabama games, but South Carolina games as well.
“I’m a die-hard Auburn fan, through and through, but I watch … Carolina play … a little now,” Landers says, drawing out her words as if she’s too shy to admit it. “I never thought I would pull for South Carolina. But we find ourselves watching because it’s fun to see kids you’ve taught go on to have that kind of success.”
“This is War Eagle country, for the most part,” Cahela, the guidance counselor, explains. “But I think, when Jake was getting ready to go to the University of South Carolina, we were all so excited. The community loved him. I watch South Carolina football because of Jake Bentley.”
So what if South Carolina plays Auburn?
“I would actually be excited,” Cahela says. “I would root for Jake. I want to see him succeed, because we need more good role models like that. We need football players who show academics are important, who are good sportsmen and leaders on and off the field and make good decisions.
“He’s the perfect role model.”
She’s pressed even further. Does that mean she’d root for South Carolina to beat Auburn?
“I don’t know,” she says. “I would be rooting for Jake. I’d be rooting for South Carolina. I like to see his face light up when he wins. Luckily, I’ll say this, they are not supposed to play Auburn while he has his four years at South Carolina. I’ve already looked at the schedule. It could come down to an SEC championship. Now that one … I don’t know.
“To be determined.”
Then there’s the ultimate.
“Whenever he decides, whether it’s this year or next, Jake will be a first-round NFL draft pick,” Speakman says. “He has everything. Every checkmark you need for a franchise quarterback, Jake Bentley has that checked off for an NFL franchise to put all their money on him.”
That’s one dream Jake Bentley wouldn’t want to wake up from.