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Gamecock’s Season Will be Fueled by High-Octane Offense

By Jim Johnson
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Jake Bentley and the South Carolina Gamecocks are ready to prove they belong with a high-powered offense.

The days of week one cupcakes are gone. It’s 2017 and the name of the game is fast starts.

That will undoubtedly be important for South Carolina, this season, as the Gamecocks open up with a very good NC State team and then jump right into conference play, at Missouri and home against Kentucky.

The onus for any early success will be placed upon the offense.

“I feel like we have to take the pressure off the defense. We have to go out there and score
points," Deebo Samuel stated

On the surface that seems strange, given that the offense was the worst in the conference and one of the worst in the country last year, and that the defense was average to above average, both in the SEC, and nationally.

However, all but one starter returns from last year’s offense, whereas the defense is dealing with significantly more personnel attrition.

One could argue that it may not necessarily be a great thing to return nearly all of a given offense, if said offense was the worst in league.

The group seen over the first half of the season, though, was vastly different than the one that finished with a 39 point showing in their bowl game.

The catalyst for that improvement was a quarterback change.

Over the first six games of 2016, South Carolina went 2-4 and averaged a meager 14 points per game.

After making Jake Bentley the starter, the Gamecocks went 4-3 and improved to 26.6 points per game.

And it looks like offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will let him loose in full this season.

“I don’t think Coach Roper is out there to play it safe,” Deebo Samuel told the crowd at SEC Media Days.

I wrote last year, after just three games from the freshman:

“Bentley has shown incredible promise, although in an admittedly small sample size. A few things that combat the lack of film, though, are his numbers on deep balls, composure under pressure, quick release and decision making, and the fact that he is has exhibited steady improvement on a week to week basis.

On passes that travel 20 or more yards downfield, Bentley leads the entire conference with an adjusted completion percentage of 64.7% (excluding drops). Plus, the sample size argument is moot here as he attempts these throws almost a fourth of the time. On top of that, four of his six touchdowns have come on balls of 20+ yards and he has yet to throw an interception -- only one other SEC quarterback has a ratio that good.

His other two touchdowns have both come under duress. Every quarterback responds negatively to defensive pressure, but typically to a much greater extent than Bentley… especially the younger ones. Infinitely more impressive is that Bentley could still be playing high school football.

Bentley does occasionally hold the ball too long, he’s been sacked eleven times, but his pocket awareness should advance with experience. When he does get the ball out, he completes 60.9% of his tries and his passer rating drops less than three points relative to throws when not under pressure. For a point of reference, Jalen Hurts’ passer rating drops nearly 50 points when pressured. Coupled with an average release time of 2.55 seconds and Bentley is already one of the quicker decision makers in the conference.”

That held up, over the remaining four contests.

On the transition from being in high school to being a starting quarterback in the SEC, as a freshman, Bentley said, “It’s just football. There might be more people watching and more complicated plays, but it’s still just football.”

All that success came behind one of the worst offensive lines in the country, as well. They allowed sacks on 7.5% of standard downs and 12.2% of obvious passing downs, 112th and 117th in the country, respectively.

Similarly atrocious on the run blocking side of things, the hope is, obviously, with four starters coming back, up front, that experience will translate to improvement.

As far as weapons, Bentley has no shortage of options.

All-purpose demon Deebo Samuel scored at least one passing, rushing, receiving, and kick return touchdown, last year, en route to being named the Steve Spurrier Award Winner for Offensive MVP.

Hayden Hurst, leads one of the deepest groups of tight ends in the conference, alongside K.C. Crosby. In 2016, Hurst set single season school records for receptions and yards by a tight end.

And finally, the dynamic running back duo of sophomores Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner are both poised for breakout campaigns.

As an inexperienced defense finds its legs, the burden of success will fall largely on the offense, over the first few games of 2017.

If the Birmingham Bowl performance is any indication, they might just be up to the task.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP