February 23, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Jake Bentley's plans for South Carolina are much bigger than rallying the Gamecocks to a bowl.

''I'm thinking to stay here for four years right now,'' said Bentley, speaking publicly this week for the first time since taking over as the Gamecocks' starting quarterback last October as a freshman.

''I want to win a national championship, and however long that takes I'm going to do it,'' Bentley continued. ''The young talent that we have is definitely ready to win a national championship, win an SEC championship.''

Bentley and his young South Carolina offensive teammates took their first steps on that journey last year and will return to work Saturday as the Gamecocks open spring practice.

The 6-foot-3 Bentley enrolled last summer after graduating high school a year early to join the Gamecocks.

He came in behind senior starter Perry Orth and freshman Brandon McIlwain, a freshman who had gone through spring practice in 2016, and planned on spending the season on the sidelines as a redshirt.

But with the Gamecocks at 2-4 and struggling on offense, coach Will Muschamp turned the offense over to Bentley during the team's bye week last October. The results were immediate; Bentley led South Carolina to four wins in five games - including an upset of then No. 18 Tennessee - and into the postseason.

Bentley said he was eager to get a chance to help fix South Carolina's problems and dug in when he learned he'd make his first start against UMass.

''I got in, worked hard, took it game by game and tried to get better every week,'' said Bentley, who was not allowed to talk to the media because of Muschamp's rules against freshman doing interviews.

''It really kept me focused,'' Bentley said about not having to talk publicly. ''Nothing against you guys.''

Bentley gave the Gamecocks quick spark, leading them to touchdowns on their first two series in a 34-28 victory over the Minutemen. He was on target again in defeating the Vols 24-21, completing 15 of 20 passes for 167 yards and two TDs.

Things did not end as well for the Gamecocks, Bentley getting sacked seven times with three interceptions in a 56-7 loss to national champion Clemson and a 46-39 loss to South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl.

Those defeats showed Bentley how far he still had to go to be a winning quarterback in the Southeastern Conference.

''Now I feel like I definitely have control of the offense and I'm able to really talk to the guys and try to fix things that they mess up,'' Bentley said. ''I'm more comfortable with the whole team and the whole process and knowing where we want to go offensively.''

Bentley finished with 1,420 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions in seven games. He completed nearly 66 percent of his passes.

Muschamp has been pleased with Bentley's approach during offseason workouts.

''He's a guy that has really attacked the offseason in the right way as far as his meetings are concerned,'' Muschamp said. ''He has got a better grasp of what we are offensively.''

Muschamp stressed that McIlwain, playing baseball for the Gamecocks this spring, will have chance to compete for the No. 1 job this fall, although anyone supplanting Bentley as this point seems very unlikely.

Bentley believes he's formed a bond with fellow freshmen like leading rusher Rico Dowdle and receiver Bryan Edwards that over time can become the core of a championship team.

''I think we're going to get better if we can keep the same group of guys,'' Bentley said. ''Just keep it rolling.''

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