Matt Hinton does his usual excellent job analyzing what South Carolina’s got in its starting quarterback.
If Bentley wasn’t one of the most touted passers in the 2016 recruiting class, it’s only because he wasn’t supposed to be in the 2016 recruiting class: He graduated from Opelika (Ala.) High a full year early and enrolled ASAP at South Carolina, where his father, Bobby, had recently joined the staff as an assistant. By midseason, Bentley had cracked the starting lineup, relegated touted classmate Brandon McIlwain to the transfer market, and entrenched himself as the focal point of the Gamecocks’ rebuilding effort under Will Muschamp. The arrow entering 2017 was pointing straight up.
A year later, the direction is wobblier. Although Carolina’s record improved, Bentley’s sophomore numbers were down across the board: Completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown-to-interception ratio, and overall efficiency all saw marked declines in his first full season as a starter. In conference games the dip was more pronounced, especially over the second half of the season. In a supposedly down year for SEC quarterbacks, Bentley’s production placed him squarely in the middle of the pack; as an offense, South Carolina fared even worse, finishing 12th out of 14 teams in yards and points per game.
How much of that falls on Bentley’s shoulders, as opposed to his less-than-inspiring surrounding cast, is a fair question. The southward turn on the stat sheet coincided with the exit of USC’s most dynamic playmaker, Deebo Samuel, due to a broken leg, forcing true-freshman receivers into the mix earlier than expected. The ground game offered minimal support; neither Bentley nor the running backs could count on any all-conference types or future draft picks up front. At times — most notably in a bruising night at Texas A&M, where Bentley was sacked seven times — it was all he could do to emerge in one piece.
There were enough flashes of the raw talent that made him an up-and-coming prospect in the first place to keep Bentley’s name on the short list of imminently draftable quarterbacks in 2018. He got off to a fine start in Saturday’s blowout win over Coastal Carolina, connecting on 22 of 29 attempts against the Chanticleers with 4 TD passes and 0 picks. To make good on his first-round potential, though, scouts will need to see sustained improvement against the top half of the schedule, beginning with Saturday’s SEC opener against Georgia. If a big, fully-realized junior campaign is in the works, it starts now.
That it’s convenient to say some of that falloff was due to Samuel’s injury doesn’t mean it’s not true to an extent. But Matt points to another area that strikes me as conveniently true, too.
According to Bill Connelly’s S&P+ system, which separates plays into “Standard Downs” and “Passing Downs,” depending on the situation, when forced into the latter column the Gamecocks’ fortunes plummeted:
(Specifically, Passing Downs are defined as 2nd-and8 or more yards to go for a first, or 3rd/4th down and 5 or more yards to go; all other downs are Standard Downs. Success Rate is defined as 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down; IsoPPP is a statistic designed to quantify explosiveness.)
That’s a big, dark hole for an entire offense to fall into on passing downs, and Bentley’s situational numbers tracked accordingly:
Bentley’s overall efficiency on third downs (95.8) ranked 15th out of 16 qualifying SEC passers, ahead of only Kellen Mond.
That’s not exclusively on the quarterback — again, the pass protection was spotty at best, and occasionally a disaster. But if there’s a single, defining statistical trend that Bentley must reverse, the abysmal success rate on obvious passing downs has to be it.
Here’s the thing about all of that: generally, it takes a village. Lack of a running game, poor offensive line support and a passing game that can’t take a lot of pressure off the first two all contribute.
It seems to me that’s asking a lot to expect everything there to be fixed in the second week of 2018. Deebo’s back and that helps, but suddenly SC has a real running game and competent offensive line to protect Bentley? I guess we’ll see, but if Smart and Tucker can get Bentley in a lot of third-and-medium to longs, I’ll take my chances with Georgia’s defense.