Jake Bentley’s memories of Columbia reside somewhere near the front of his brain. They’re not exactly front and center, nor buried deep in the back. But they’re there.
Picking up the phone in late March, Bentley’s familiar Southern drawl hasn’t shifted much from his time guiding the Gamecock offense. But the man on the other end of the line has seen his once streamlined college football experience turn into a cross-country odyssey.
Bentley thinks back to his time in the Palmetto State with fond recollections. He remembers downing No. 18 Tennessee during his freshman year and recounts the come-from-behind Outback Bowl victory over Michigan the following season.
He explains how his favorite Mexican spot in town is Cantina 76 — the one on Devine, not Main Street.
“Heck yeah,” he says emphatically when told his restaurant suggestion will be taken up.
Bentley, 23, is older these days. He’s no longer the springy, baby-faced freshman who took on monumental expectations of a fan base desperate for a superstar signal-caller. Hell, he’s almost the same distance in age from South Alabama’s freshmen as he is new head coach Kane Wommack, who became the youngest head coach in the FBS this offseason at 34 years old.
Now two years removed from his last snap in garnet and black, Bentley is looking to add a final chapter to his collegiate legacy and, perhaps, resurrect a career that just a short time ago felt destined for the NFL.
“I think I said it yesterday to somebody that there’s very few, if any, situations in college football that I haven’t faced so far,” Bentley told The State. “And really I’ve been able to learn from just so many different circumstances (and) situations that really I think helped mold me and helped me just be ready for this year and to leave it all out there and have the one last year.”
From USC and Utah to South Alabama
That Bentley landed back in Alabama is as much happenstance as it is bizarre fate.
Initially planning to commit to another FBS school after a wayward one season trip to Utah, Bentley hopped on a three-way call with offensive coordinator Major Applewhite and Wommack before he officially announced any kind of pledge.
“Getting on that first conversation, which was a three-way call between myself, him and Major, you quickly felt like you were speaking with another adult,” Wommack told The State. “You’re speaking with another man that understands the game of football, that has seen a lot and experienced a lot and is going to approach this with a very mature mindset.“
Applewhite’s connection to Bentley dates back to his days at Texas where he served as the associate head coach and running backs coach alongside former South Carolina lead man Will Muschamp — then the Longhorns’ defensive coordinator.
Wommack, too, had familiarity with Bentley from his time torching defenses at Opelika High School, while he served as the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at South Alabama during the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
Diving into the intricacies of what Applewhite and Wommack envisioned for both the offense and the fledgling program that’s only been at the FBS level fully since 2013, the trio clicked.
Contact between Applewhite and Bentley continued after the initial discussion. Bentley jokes his new offensive coordinator would call him while driving and he’d pull off to the side of the road to start drawing up plays.
“Adding experience to the quarterback room was a priority for us as a staff coming in,” Applewhite explained. “We had some guys who played some snaps, but getting a guy who’s played as many as Jake was something we wanted to make sure we had on our roster.”
There was a relative comfort in what the coaches pitched. Being back in the state Bentley shined brightest as a high school star was an added bonus.
On Jan. 6 at 6:41 p.m., Bentley fired off a tweet announcing his commitment to South Alabama.
“Listening to coach Applewhite and coach Wommack and what their vision and plan for the program is moving forward and where our plan is going to be this year, just some of that really excited me,” Bentley told The State. “You could see how excited coach Applewhite was to be back in the saddle calling plays and (I) just really wanted to be a part of what they were going to have going this year.”
After an ebbing and flowing season at Utah in which he connected on just 62.1 percent of his 124 passes for 882 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions in five games, Bentley has quickly grasped the reins of Applewhite’s offense. He tossed three touchdowns in a scrimmage earlier this spring. He also completed 5 of 11 passes for 27 yards in South Alabama’s abbreviated spring game that ended prematurely due to lightning.
Coaches have lauded Bentley’s leadership. Applewhite said he’s always eager to ask questions when there’s a concept or play that he hasn’t fully grasped, while his approach and preparedness for quarterback meetings permeates throughout the position group.
Speaking with The State last month, neither Wommack or Applewhite was quite ready to commit to a starting quarterback, though indications pointed toward Bentley. After wrapping up spring ball, however, South Alabama settled on its signal-caller.
One hundred and 11 days after Bentley announced his transfer destination, a graphic from South Alabama’s football Twitter account appeared with a quote and a brief note: “Kane Wommack names Jake Bentley QB1.”
L.E.O, leaving a legacy and Jake Bentley’s final year
Wommack’s program building principles boil down to 15 characters — “Love each other,” or L.E.O. for short.
The motto comes with Wommack from his time as the defensive coordinator under Tom Allen at Indiana, where Allen instilled the same credo for his own burgeoning program.
Taking over his first head coaching job, Wommack is leaning on the lessons learned from his time in Bloomington and bringing them to the forefront of what he hopes to build in Mobile.
“L.E.O. defined for South Alabama is a genuine consideration toward our city, university and most importantly, each other,” Wommack explains. “And so within that right the value is when you’ve got new dynamics, new coaches, new transfer players, all these new relationships. If you don’t genuinely consider the needs of others above yourself, you’ll never get to know those people on the level that you need to to fight through a season together.”
To some, the idea of L.E.O. might be cheesy or cliché. For a time, it felt like it might die off entirely after Allen strung together back-to-back 5-7 seasons with losses to arch-rival Purdue.
But like Allen, the philosophy has persisted. Indiana finished No. 12 in the final Associated Press poll last year for its highest finish in the rankings since 1967.
The mindset and its success are part of what helped Wommack land back at South Alabama. It’s also a cog in how Bentley has quickly endeared himself to teammates and bought into a new staff’s philosophy.
“It would have been easy to come in here as a former SEC starting quarterback, and to wave his experience around everybody else and (Jake) didn’t do that,” Wommack said. “I think he genuinely cares for his teammates. I think he’s a genuine team player that just wants to make this group better and I think that is the value of L.E.O. for a new program.”
Bentley’s South Carolina career started emphatically before an injury and a transfer curtailed the once-promising passer. Two years later, the memories of Columbia, his four years in garnet and black and the games won and lost remain.
Back in Alabama, Bentley isn’t chasing stardom or accolades. Rather, a final college season in Mobile is a chance to stick one last peg in his enduring football legacy.
“One thing my dad always told us growing up is that ‘it’s not about the rings and things, it’s about the relationships you build through those,’ ” Bentley said. “So, you know, the games are great and that’s awesome. But you know, 30 years from now, nobody’s really gonna care. ... My thing is, hopefully I’ve made an impact on somebody that they will remember 30 years from now.”
5 facts about Jake Bentley’s football career
Started his prep career at Byrnes High School in South Carolina before moving to Opelika, Alabama when his father, Bobby Bentley, took an assistant coaching job at Auburn.
Rated a four-star recruit and No. 263 player in the 2016 class per the 247Sports Composite rankings. Was also slotted as the No. 12 pro-style quarterback in the class.
Ranks second in South Carolina history in completion percentage (62.5), third in pass completions (626), passing touchdowns (55) and touchdowns responsible for (63), fourth in passing yards (7,527) and pass attempts (1,002) and sixth in career wins (19).
Guided South Carolina to 9-4 season and a win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl in 2017.
Completed 77 of 124 passes for 882 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions in five games in 2020 at Utah.