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Will Muschamp has open mind about Jake Bentley competing for QB job

BRISTOL, Conn. -- Will Muschamp had no idea when he accepted a commitment from Jake Bentley this spring that he would be adding him as a South Carolina quarterback for the 2016 season.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later, when Muschamp assistant Bobby Bentley -- Jake’s father -- informed him that his son could complete high school a year early, that Muschamp added another contender into a wide-open position battle.

“After the signing date had gone through, Jake had taken some visits and looked at some different places and what he was interested in,” Muschamp said during Monday’s visit to the “SEC Car Wash” on the ESPN campus. He kind of decided he wanted to be at South Carolina, so he let me know about that -- nothing [to] let me know he’s coming early.

“And then after about a month or so, I think he and his father had some conversations about, ‘You know, I’m only taking one class, where I could take [it] right now if I wanted to. I can complete the class. I’d like to go ahead and get started.’”

At the time of his initial commitment to South Carolina, ESPN rated the 6-foot-4 Bentley as the No. 33 overall prospect in the 2017 class and as the No. 2 pocket passer. Soon he was no longer a 2017 prospect at all -- following a trend that is slightly more common in college basketball, even if it was nearly unheard of in football.

Basketball players like Andre Dawkins of Duke and 2013-14 SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin, who starred at Muschamp’s old stomping grounds in Florida, also skipped their senior seasons of high school and jumped straight into college.

“Kids now, in seventh and eighth grade, are taking high school-level classes and they’re getting credit, so I think it’s going to happen more and more,” Muschamp said.

Bentley took an unusual route to becoming a college player, but he will hear the same message that Muschamp delivers to all freshmen once preseason camp opens in two weeks.

“I don’t treat Jake any different than I treat every freshman,” Muschamp said. “Come in, compete, we’re going to play the best players. If you’re one of the best players at your position, you’ll play. And if you’re the best, you’ll start.”

Bentley is one of two freshmen -- the other is early enrollee Brandon McIlwain, ESPN’s No. 118 overall prospect in the 2016 class -- competing at a position that has been shaky for South Carolina over the past year.

Only Perry Orth, who passed for 1,929 yards, 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 12 games last season, is back in more or less the same role he played last season. Connor Mitch, who started the 2015 opener against North Carolina, has left the program. Backup Michael Scarnecchia is out for the season following shoulder surgery. And Lorenzo Nunez, who started twice last year, will split time between wide receiver and quarterback.

“We’ve got to make sure he’s got a comfort level with what we’re doing, but situationally he’s going to help us at quarterback regardless,” Muschamp said of Nunez. “So we’ll work through that in camp. We’re going to practice the first four practices as split squad, so those guys will be getting plenty of reps as far as the quarterback position is concerned.”

That’s where Bentley will get a chance to prove that he can make a difference this season. McIlwain has a head start after gaining valuable experience this spring -- especially after Orth broke his collarbone and missed the back end of spring practice -- but Bentley adds more promising talent at a position that needed an upgrade.

Muschamp made it clear on Monday that he has an open mind about the competition, emphasizing that, “We’re going to do what it takes to win. If he’s the best at his position, we’ll see what happens.”

“It’s good to have quality depth. I do think that we’ve got some ability at the position,” Muschamp added. “Lorenzo’s going to play both quarterback and receiver. So there’ll be enough reps, especially early in camp, to define where everything is.”