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The Ryan Hilinski era is suddenly here, and now it’s wait and see

With Jake Bentley injured, this season has taken on a different complexion.

Photo by Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For all intents and purposes, it’s likely that the Jake Bentley era of South Carolina football is over. He’s out for at least six weeks with a broken foot, and if surgery is required, indications are that he’ll pursue a medical redshirt and sit the rest of the year. It’s possible he could stick around in Columbia for a re-do of his aborted senior season, but going to a needy program as a grad transfer could be a more appealing path, especially with how common player movement has become.

Regardless — and we do wish Bentley the best, both with his recovery and with whatever he decides about his future — it’s the Ryan Hilinski show now.

It’s actually a twisted sort of irony, because Bentley started his South Carolina career in a fashion similar to the way Hilinski will begin his. In 2016, Bentley entered the program as a true freshman and highly-touted recruit, a Quarterback of the Future type of prospect that Gamecock fans were buzzing about. When South Carolina got off to a rocky 2-4 start under new head coach Will Muschamp, all bets were off, and Bentley got his first chance to show what he could do in a home game against UMass. From there, the rest is history: He directed South Carolina to four wins in its final six games, including an upset victory against Tennessee in just his second start, and flashed tantalizing potential for even bigger and better things.

Now, three years later with Bentley sidelined by injury after a devastating loss, the Gamecocks have another highly-touted true freshman quarterback taking the reins against a mid-major opponent. I expect we’ll see similar things against Charleston Southern that we did against UMass in 2016: an encouraging, uplifting performance from the quarterback in a big victory that will help wash out Week 1’s bitter aftertaste.

But what do things look like after that, especially as the juggernaut Alabama comes to town the very next week? It’s no exaggeration to say this might be the worst schedule to pit against a true freshman quarterback. Then again, more freshman quarterbacks are playing in college football now than ever before, and we only have to look back at last week for evidence that they can succeed.

I don’t expect Hilinski to solve all of South Carolina’s problems. That’s a lot to put on his shoulders, and as other observers have pointed out, the team needs to play well around him, too. That goes double for the coaches, who would be well served to both prepare this team more effectively and also adjust better to in-game developments. While Muschamp is likely safe through the 2020 season — owing both to this year’s schedule and now the Bentley injury — he’s in danger of losing faith from the fan base and possibly the support of the administration. There is truly nothing left for Muschamp to lose except his job, so my hope is that Hilinski — and the rest of the team — is given every chance to be turned loose.

Because realistically, we know what we’re up against. 2019 was always going to be a difficult year, even with Bentley under center. (To be honest, I never understood the preseason optimism for an 8-9 win season, and had always been expecting 5-6.) Football coaches tend to be a risk-averse, conservative group of people, and Muschamp absolutely exemplifies that approach. But this program needs a spark, and it’s going to require more than just what Ryan Hilinski can provide. With the team turning the page to a new era, and Muschamp possibly down to his last chance to be a head coach in the FBS, there’s no better time than the present for him to try something — anything — different.