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There’s 90 days until South Carolina football. Can Jake Bentley take the next step?

Year two of the Bentley era should bring much greater returns for the Gamecocks in 2017. But what needs to happen for the sophomore to establish himself as one of the SEC’s top signal callers?

Western Carolina v South Carolina Photo by Todd Bennett/GettyImages

For the first time in what seems like forever, there won’t be a debate as to who will be under center for the Gamecocks come September 3.

It’s hard to look at last year and not feel that Jake Bentley has the tools, skillset and upside to take the next step and assert himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC. I won’t go as far as to say that he’ll be a Heisman contender, but the 19-year-old showed that he was capable of leading a college offense last year. He was by no means perfect last year, but let’s not forget that he was supposed to be a senior in...actually, never mind.

South Carolina v Clemson
Jake Bentley’s spot as the starting quarterback of the Gamecocks will be rock solid going into camp.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Brandon McIlwain experiment ended on October 1 with the Gamecocks trailing Texas A&M in the 4th quarter. Perry Orth would take the rest of that game and play the whole way against Georgia, but when the team took the field against UMass on October 22, it was Bentley who would be stepping under center for his first career start. And it wasn’t that bad, either: 17 for 26, 201 yards (long of 47), two touchdowns in a 34-28 victory.

While he definitely showed some freshman tendencies throughout the 2016 season - including getting smoked at eventual national champion Clemson, although you can barely put that loss on one person - his performance in the Birmingham Bowl against South Florida (32 for 43, 390 yards, three touchdowns) was enough to show fans that this kid might turn out to be a pretty good player. He certainly has the weapons as the cupboard at receiving is a lot more stocked this year than it was last year (Deebo Samuel, Bryan Edwards, Hayden Hurst, highly-touted freshman OrTre Smith).

With home run threats like Samuel and Edwards able to get downfield and challenge CBs, that plays into Bentley’s ability to lean on the deep pass as needed. (A deep pass is defined by PFF as a ball that travel in the air more than 20 yards before hitting their target. We haven’t seen and big bombs like 50+ or 60+ yards receptions just yet.)

I spent some time watching some of Bentley’s snaps from last season, and in that first start against UMass, he looked very strong and confident in the pocket when he had time to throw. Even when he didn’t have time, he had that elusiveness to make plays with his feet and the awareness to bail himself out when he needed to after going through his progressions. (7:35-7:41 show a perfect strike to Deebo Samuel in triple coverage - but he was still able to find a window to put it right into his hands.) Although, he tried to force things to happen on his own (8:03-8:07, where he had Rico Dowdle open on a screen thanks to some nice blocking by Hurst but decided to run and was sacked).

Below, in the Birmingham Bowl, he shows great vision to find Hurst for a nice gain to get the team into the red zone. Credit the offensive line giving him time to survey the field and fire a bullet to his tight end.

Here’s another great throw to Deebo Samuel, where even though Bentley’s under duress, he shows the poise I mentioned earlier to make use of the time he has and hit Samuel for a 24-yarder.

Watching this should make fans confident that Bentley can hold up his end of the bargain, especially with a capable core of receivers in place already and some promising talent coming in.

But can the line hold up, though? The offensive line was bad for South Carolina last year; bad enough regardless of who you have back there, even worse when it’s a true freshman. With Shawn Elliott taking over the Georgia State program in the offseason, the Gamecocks went back to the past to fill his spot at offensive line coach and brought back former Spurrier staffer Eric Wolford. To his credit, Wolford’s enjoyed some measure of success wherever he’s gone, but he’ll need to be able to coach a unit up that’s been fairly weak for a few years now. The plus side: everyone’s back aside from the graduated Mason Zandi. JUCO transfer Dennis Daley could also figure heavily into the rotation at the tackle spot. If Wolford can get this line even a few notches above where they were last year, that will set Bentley up for bigger success. Having veteran center Alan Knott to tie things together is a big plus.

There’s been a good amount of press surrounding Bentley this offseason. The SEC Network’s Cole Cubelic had some nice words about Bentley’s ability just a few short days ago. Cubelic’s SEC Network colleague, former Alabama QB Greg McElroy, put Bentley at a much higher level than sophomore counterpart Jacob Eason at Georgia. The Manning Passing Academy (yes, those Mannings) will welcome Bentley as a counselor at their annual camp this month.

So, yes, the expectations are fairly high for him to take that next step as a sophomore. Can he live up to them? Well, that might be the difference between a breakthrough season for South Carolina football or another year looking up at the rest of the SEC East.