Starting QB big question mark for South Carolina

uscfoot-19One of South Carolina’s most closely watched competitions in the fall will be at the quarterback position, the most important position on the field, where a small handful of candidates will have an opportunity to prove they are worthy to take the first snap of the season in Nashville on September 1.

Fifth-year senior Perry Orth, a former walk-on who played his way into a starting role last season, and true freshman Brandon McIlwain, separated themselves from the group in the spring, and entered fall camp splitting reps evenly with the first and second-team units for offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.

Orth has the decided advantage in experience. He appeared in all 12 games a season ago, making seven starts, getting the call in some of the nation’s most hostile environments, including Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M. He completed 55 percent of his passes for 1,929 yards with a dozen touchdowns. The 6-1, 200-pounder from Ponte Vedra, Fla., who helped pay for his schooling by stocking shelves at a local grocery store before going on scholarship prior to the 2015 season, was named the Harold White GPA Award recipient for the offense at the 2016 Garnet & Black Spring Game. He suffered a broken left collarbone during the spring and underwent surgery, but has completely recovered from that injury.

“He looks good. He looks more powerful than he did in the spring,” said Roper. “I think he’s stronger. He’s moving at a good pace right now. I don’t see any issues in dealing with the collarbone from the spring.

“Experience is obviously a huge advantage,” continued Roper. “You’ve been in the stadiums before, you’ve gotten ready for a game before and gone through all the butterflies and the anxiety that goes along with it. And then dealing with the complex defenses that you see in the SEC causes a challenge. Being in the battle before definitely helps,” noted Roper.

McIlwain is considered the more physically-gifted of the two. The two-sport prep standout from Newtown, Pa. (he also plays baseball for the Gamecocks and coach Chad Holbrook in the spring) graduated from high school early and enrolled at Carolina in January. In addition to spending time on the baseball diamond, he was able to go through football spring drills and position himself as a starting candidate. The six-foot, 205-pounder took advantage of Orth’s absence and an injury to Lorenzo Nuñez to get the bulk of the snaps in the spring. He completed 19-of-26 passes for 169 yards in the spring game, and maybe more notably, did not turn the ball over.

“Brandon has shown that these aren’t his first practices,” noted Roper after the first couple days of fall camp. “I think he’s come back smarter in his understanding of what we’re trying to do offensively. Talent is a great thing to have on your side. We’ve just got to figure out who is going to be the most productive.”

Sophomore Lorenzo Nuñez, who, like McIlwain, possesses the running ability that offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is looking for at the quarterback position, missed the last half of the spring with a minor knee injury, but got a taste of big-time college football as a true freshman last fall. He completed 62 percent of his passes for 376 yards and three scores, and was the team’s second-leading rusher with 375 yards despite playing in just eight games, including a pair of starts. The 6-3, 205-pounder from Kennesaw, Ga., has been used primarily at wide receiver thus far in the fall camp, but head coach Will Muschamp noted that the offense would have some packages that would feature Nuñez at quarterback, where he can make plays with his excellent running ability.

The wildcard candidate to the quarterback derby is highly-touted true freshman Jake Bentley, son of running backs coach Bobby Bentley. The younger Bentley graduated from high school a year early, passing on his senior season, and enrolled at Carolina in the summer. At 6-3, 223 pounds, Bentley possesses all the tools necessary to have success at this level, including the acumen, as he comes from a family of quarterbacks. Brothers, Chas (Rutgers) and Shuler (Old Dominion) also played quarterback at the collegiate level.

“You see he’s a talented guy,” said Roper of Bentley. “He is an intelligent guy. He picks things up. But it’s still a brand-new situation for him.”

Sophomore Michael Scarnecchia, a 6-4, 215-pounder from Fleming Island, Fla., suffered a left (non-throwing) shoulder injury while working out at his home over the summer and underwent labrum surgery. He will miss the entire 2016 campaign.

Walk-ons Danny Gordon, a six-foot, 210-pound sophomore from Worthington, Ohio is eligible for the first time at South Carolina after transferring from Miami (O) and Bailey Hart, a 6-2, 175-pound freshman from Wando High School in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., provide depth.

Photo courtesy of USC Athletics

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