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South Carolina’s five most important players: No. 1 Jake Bentley

It’s the obvious choice, but it’s also the correct choice

Jake Bentley South Carolina Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

No position is more important, worse coached and is put in positions to fail more often in sports than the quarterback.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a spot in sports which affects the success of a team like quarterback does. Bad quarterback play can waste an elite defense, minimize great receivers and more often than not get coaches fired. Very rarely will you find championships teams quarterbacked by a subpar talent.

Teams like 2015 Alabama and 2007 LSU are the outliers. With every national championship on the books you’ll find a Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Jameis Winston or a Matt Leinart to pair with the trophy. If you want to bring things around locally, South Carolina’s best stretch of football ever was aided by a guy named Connor Shaw.

Clemson’s recent uptick in success changed when Deshaun Watson took over for Tajh Boyd. The point should be obvious by now. Good quarterback play can make a good team great or even a mask a bad team’s flaws.

It’s not a coincidence South Carolina disastrous 3-9 season in 2015 coincided with the departure of Dylan Thompson. It took Connor Mitch all of a game and a half to prove he wasn’t ready for the job, then the reigns were given to the underqualified Perry Orth for the rest of the year.

I don’t mean to knock on Orth too hard there, but what Orth had in good fundamentals and smarts he lacked in talent. It showed on the field, leaving South Carolina to bring in two freshman for the 2016 season: Brandon McIlwain and Jake Bentley.

McIlwain got the early hype and deservedly so. He was an Elite 11 participant and had the dual-threat element that conjured up memories of Shaw from just three seasons ago. However that shine quickly faded away once McIlwain started to split time with Orth. On 118 pass attempts McIlwain completed just 52.5 percent of them at 4.1 yards a pop.

In steps Bentley, who was supposed to be a senior in high school in 2016, and immediately improved the offense. In the words of Bill Connelly from his South Carolina preview:

Even adjusting for opponent, South Carolina’s offense took a step forward when Bentley stepped behind center.

First 6 games (2-4): Avg. percentile performance: 37% (16% offense, 60% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.3, SC 4.8 (minus-0.5) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-1.4 PPG

Last 7 games (4-3): Avg. percentile performance: 47% (45% offense, 46% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.9, SC 5.4 (minus-0.5) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-3.6 PPG

McIlwain defenders will argue he faced stiffer defenses on a weekly basis than Bentley did, which is partially true. Take a look at the chart below:

Defensive S&P Comparison

Bradndon McIlwain Jake Bentley
Bradndon McIlwain Jake Bentley
Opponent Defensive S&P Opponent Defensive S&P
Vanderbilt: 40 Massachusetts: 103
Kentucky:83 Tennessee: 52
East Carolina: 104 Missouri: 88
Mississipi State: 73 Florida: 4
Texas A&M: 36 Clemson: 6
Georgia: 34 South Florida: 110
Mean S&P: 61.7 Mean S&P: 60.5
Median S&P: 56.5 Median S&P: 70

While McIlwain saw three top-40 defenses, he never saw any in the top ten. Bentley saw two of the ten best defenses in the county, but didn’t play another in the top 50. When it boils down to the averages, McIlwain and Bentley saw pretty much the same thing in terms of defensive quality.

But numbers won’t do us justice here. To see the real differences in Bentley and McIlwain and how they changed the course of South Carolina’s season, we need to look at the tape.

For the tale of the tape comparisons, we’ll look at McIlwain and Bentley in similar settings. For McIlwain, the tape is against Kentucky (83rd in defensive S&P) and for Bentley it will be against Missouri (88th in defensive S&P). The play calling for these two players were very different, so you really can’t find them throwing similar plays.

But we did our best to try and find plays similar enough in these two games. First, let’s look at McIlwain on this first play of the game against Kentucky.

This play is drawn up perfectly by Kurt Roper, but McIlwain totally screws it up from start to finish. First of all, McIlwain holds on to the ball for less than two seconds from snap to release. There’s no reason to rush this throw.

The misdirection from the pulling offensive lineman neutralizes the pass rush, leaving McIlwain plenty of time to set his feet and deliver an accurate throw — neither of which he does. The play is a perfectly set up smash concept that exposes the quarters coverage Kentucky runs.

Terry Googer (5) runs a quick hitch paired next to a 15-yard corner route by KC Crosby (3). It leaves the corner Derrick Baity (29) to pick between the better of two evils: play deep to take away the corner or play tight against Googer and hope McIlwain misses the throw.

As seen here in the screen grab, not only does McIlwain not have his feet set but tries to generate all of his velocity off his front foot He doesn’t even let the corner route develop all the way before he lets the ball go. But he still has Googer wide open on the hitch and puts the ball in the dirt.

This play pretty well encapsulates all of McIlwains weaknesses in his first six games. Severe lack of pocket awareness, rushed decisions and some flawed mechanics. All the physical talent in the world is there, but the technical aspects of playing the position are missing. But that’s to be expected with most true freshman quarterbacks and McIlwain isn’t alone on this.

Now we move on to Bentley against Missouri, where the route and play are different but the type of throw to be made is very similar.

Missouri runs a cover one on this play, meaning the only player covering a deep part of the field is the free safety. All the defensive backs playing coverage are man up over their receivers while everyone else blitzes. Missouri brings six rushers with four defensive backs in man coverage and one deep safety. Classic cover one.

South Carolina actually blocks the blitz well initially. Bentley looks towards his primary target and sees the throw isn’t open, then shifting his eyes over towards Deebo Samuel (1). While this is happening, Bentley stands strong in the pocket as a free rusher runs right by his face.

Look at how much breathing room Bentley has while standing in the pocket with six rushers.

If Bentley waits 0.7 more seconds to release this ball he’s getting crunched from behind by Marcell Frazier (16). In the face of pressure Bentley throws a tight spiral while transferring the weight from back foot to front for extra velocity. Granted, the ball is delivered a little high to Samuel but it’s nothing the uber-athletic receiver can’t reach.

Bentley diagnoses this play in less than three seconds to deliver the ball to an open receiver, who’s still being played pretty tight by Aarlon Penton (11). What you see here are all the things which made Bentley so successful on his first season. The tight mechanics, patience in the pocket and ability to make quick, accurate decisions are what’s made the hype around him so loud in 2017.

So let’s resurface from the real deep football talk and look at the big picture. McIlwain was a better QB prospect from a physical standpoint. His measurable are what made him an Elite 11 qualifier and four-star prospect, but when you put pads on and turn the defense live the flaws shined blindingly bright.

Bentley, while not the athlete McIlwain is, had the mechanical side of the position down better than most true freshman you’ll find with the arm talent to boot. Those little technical aspects of playing the QB position were the difference in South Carolina going to a bowl last season.

In the grand scheme of things, Bentley was the biggest difference maker in last season’s turnaround because of how he played the position. That’s why he’s the most important player coming into this season. If anything happens to Bentley’s health or his quality of play, South Carolina’s season is destined to fall into a tailspin.