This story begins in the constantly evolving mind of an NFL scout—a personnel evaluator for 30 years, working in the dream destination for just about every college football player.
He has held onto a secret for years now—one that coaches in the NFL don't dare address, or even acknowledge—and it's time to let everyone in on it.
"Everything about playing football now is negative," he says. "Players don't get paid in college. They sacrifice their body for someone else. Players have the most to lose of anyone involved..."
He stops mid-sentence, breathes deeply and with an incredulous tone states matter-of-factly, "How has anyone not thought of this sooner?"
When Jake Bentley, South Carolina's sophomore quarterback, is told of the secret, a blank look scrolls across his face.
He is an elite quarterback and academic scholar, a player who had Stanford and Notre Dame begging him to sign, who could have played anywhere in the Ivy League. He might just be a doctor when his playing career is over.
"Never even thought of it," Bentley says. "But now that I've heard it, man, that would be cool to be the trendsetter."
Imagine having this secret—this idea that is hiding in plain sight, too obvious to be seen—at a time when there's so much public discourse over the rights of college athletes.
Then the perfect player in the perfect situation falls right into the perfect scenario, and it can no longer be kept under wraps.
The secret, everyone, is as simple as this: If you want to be in the NFL, skip your senior year of high school. Yep, graduate after your junior year and head to college.
Do what Bentley did.
By skipping your senior year of high school, you save yourself a season of wear and tear on your body. You also increase the speed of getting to the NFL and getting paid to play a game that we're more aware how dangerous is with each passing year.
There's a thus-far underutilized loophole in NFL eligibility. The league's rule is that to enter the draft, your graduating class has to be three years removed from high school—not that you have to be three years removed from your senior year. The sooner you graduate, the sooner you're eligible.
With all that's stacked against college players, with all the risk resting squarely on their shoulders—five college players from different divisions have died already this season—the smart move for high school and college players whose lives are built around the goal of playing in the NFL is to get there as quickly as possible.
Get there, earn your money, get out.
"It would have to be a unique player [to take this path to the NFL]," says Alabama coach Nick Saban, who recruited Bentley. "It would have to be a player who is physically and emotionally ready and socially aware. A high achiever."
Bentley is your high achiever. He's the one to set the trend.
When he finished his junior year at Opelika (Ala.) High School, he was 6'4", 215 pounds and was rated one of the top pro-style quarterbacks in his recruiting class. He had successfully rehabbed from two ACL surgeries and never had anything below an A in the classroom.
A few months after choosing South Carolina, Bentley—who was a handful of credits shy from graduating high school—told Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp that, what the heck, he would earn those credits in the summer and enroll in time for fall camp.
It might suck to miss your senior season, and you might be throwing away the most important of your high school years, but if you're going to do something and you're ready to do it—as they say in Duncan, South Carolina, where Jake was raised and his father became a legendary coach at Byrnes High School—you might as well get on doing it.
"It was never, 'Hey, I have this plan to graduate early and come play,'" says Bobby Bentley, Jake's dad and South Carolina's running backs coach. "It was just, 'I've thought about this, and I'm going to do it.' That's about what this deal was for us as a family. Nothing more."
It is then that Bobby Bentley is told of the secret path, the idea his son just absorbed an hour earlier. He leans forward in his chair, thumps his finger three times on the oak desk in his brand-new office inside the palatial digs at Williams-Brice Stadium and begins to smile. One of those pure, unfiltered grins when you've heard something you never expected.
When you've heard a secret.
"Now that I look at it, now that you've told me about it," Bentley continues, "when you look at the strategy of it, that's a great idea."
They flock to Coronado, California, every sun-splashed Memorial Day Weekend, quarterbacks of all ages and shapes and sizes, to throw with the elite of high school and college football.
Steve Clarkson's Trendsetters Quarterbacks Camps include the nation's top high school quarterbacks and top college quarterbacks counseling signal-callers of the future from ages six to 18.
Lamar Jackson and Josh Rosen were there. So were Wilton Speight and Jacob Eason, and Jake Fromm and Sam Ehlinger. Now Trevor Lawrence is.
Lawrence, the consensus No. 1 recruit in the 2017 class and a player many recruiting experts believe is the best quarterback recruit since a guy named John Elway, laughs when he hears the plan.
Lawrence committed to Clemson last year at the end of his junior season and is throwing darts at Clarkson's camp while an NFL agent watches from the sideline.
"There are guys in the NFL who can't make throws like that," the agent says.
So, naturally, the idea of graduating early is suggested to Lawrence.
"Can't imagine it," Lawrence says, shaking his head. "I mean, no. No way."
So how does it happen? How does one transition a year early from high school without making a complete fool of himself both on and off the field?
Aside from the process of reclassifying itself, which in most cases requires a decision to be made by sophomore year and typically entails a challenging additional course load, Jake Bentley has a list of five mental approaches paramount in making the move athletically:
• High level of confidence: "Guys aren't just going to let you walk in and get reps. When you get there, rankings or however you got there, just go right out the window. Nobody cares. You're a normal freshman. You have to come in with the swagger to go win the spot."
• Stay in your playbook: "I watch game tape all the time. Watched it all the time in high school, and I still do almost every day here. You've got to do whatever you can to make up ground on the people who have been there and understand the offense and the little things it takes."
• Be physically ready: "You're going to get hit, and it's going to hurt. A lot of Advils help. The first time I knew it was real was against Tennessee. We had a screen play called, and I had to jump to get the throw off. Before I could land, there's big Derek Barnett hitting me, his shoulder underneath my ribcage and driving me backward into the ground. It felt like 300 pounds was going right through my chest. He looked down at me and said, 'Are you OK?' I don't even remember what I said, if I said anything."
• Embrace the speed of the game: "It's fast, really fast. You get used to the coverage and the tighter windows to throw into. The hardest thing to get used to is the speed of the defensive linemen. A good block is going to last two to three seconds if you're lucky. And the offensive line is doing their job; that's how long they're supposed to hold them off. I could outrun D-linemen in high school. Now there are guys that weigh 100 pounds more than me, are two inches taller than me, and might run faster than me. I learned pretty quickly: just get the ball out."
|Jake Bentley college stats|
• Above all, don't get discouraged: "You're going to have times where it's tough. Why did I do this? Why did I come? I could've been chilling in high school. I could've been taking P.E. and three study halls and hanging out with the coach. I thought of all those things when I wasn't playing. You have to fight through it and keep battling and be ready to play. You never know when your time will come."
Earlier this month in the season-opener against NC State, when Bentley should've been playing in his first college game, the next phase of his development began to take hold.
He already had led the Gamecocks to bowl eligibility last year as a freshman when he should've been playing high school football, taking over a two-win team midway through the season and leading it to a spot in the Birmingham Bowl.
In the third quarter against NC State, Bentley escaped the rush, rolled right and—on the run—threw a 40-yard bullet to wideout Deebo Samuel in stride in the end zone. Samuel wasn't the prime target on the play; he was clearing out the underneath for tight end Hayden Hurst.
The play is the easy throw to Hurst, but because Bentley was flushed from the pocket, he rolled and kept his eyes downfield, and in one fluid motion he made the most difficult throw in the game look easy.
Immediately, I call another NFL scout and ask him about Bentley.
"He has grown so much since that first real game last year against Tennessee," the scout says. "He's running the offense now. Changing plays, going through progressions, buying time by moving his feet. … He's doing everything you want to see and completing passes. And that's, what, the eighth game of his career? This kid is going to be elite."
Then, I bring up the secret path to the NFL, and the focus of the conversation changes.
"There's no way any coach in college or the NFL is going to tell you that's a good idea—because it goes against their best interest," the scout says. "[The NFL] gets free development; why would we want to change that? That senior year [of high school] is another year of reps; why would a college coach want to lose that?"
The tone of his voice then gets heavier and more strenuous, and he continues.
"You're hypothetically talking about a young guy who skips a critical year in his maturation—not just as a football player, but as a young man. Then he's getting through college as fast as he can, and then you're going to throw money at him and expect him to deal with everything that comes with it? At the most important position on the field? He better be one special guy."
Jake Bentley is, in the words of the original NFL scout with his secret plan, the perfect guy.
He has been around football all his life. His brother Chas Dodd played at Rutgers from 2010 to 2013, and his brother Shuler Bentley transferred last year from Old Dominion and is the starting quarterback at Murray State.
Jake was born to play the position, was coached since he could hold a ball in his hands and has dealt with—and returned stronger from—significant injuries since.
"He has been through things in his young life that other guys have never experienced," Muschamp says. "That stuff has value. He's the player he is because of that. All those stories you hear, they're all true."
And they all revolve around football.
When Jake was two, Bobby used blocking dummies on the field at Byrnes as childcare. Rolled them in a square and plopped Jake in the middle. Bobby was coaching, his wife was working and someone had to watch Jake. Why not let football take over?
About a year later, Jake started throwing a Nerf football.
"Since I could throw a ball, [Bobby] was throwing stuff at me, trying to get me to move in the pocket," Jake says. "I wish I knew how many footballs I've thrown in my life."
Ballpark it, he is asked.
"There's no telling," he says. "Can't even put a number on it."
It should come as no surprise, then, that when Jake was nine, he was taking practice snaps in seven-on-seven drills with the varsity at Byrnes, a K-12 school. There's no age rule with practice, and, well, Jake needed the reps.
By the time he was 12, he was standing on the sidelines during Byrnes games, and Bobby would drill him on defensive fronts and coverages and play-calling.
What are you seeing, Jake? What's the play call, Jake? If we don't convert on third down, what's the call, Jake?
"By the third grade, I knew he had it," Bobby says. "He could whip his brothers, too. He was completing varsity passes as a fourth- and fifth-grader and wasn't even five feet tall. We tried to put a helmet on him one time and it wouldn't fit. We said, 'Just go.' He was a little midget out there."
By the time Jake reached middle school, his body began to physically change, and a significant growth spurt pushed him to six feet. A year later, he tore the ACL in his left knee, and a year after that, he tore the ACL in his right knee. Both injuries, doctors told Bobby, were because of the quick growth spurt and the inability of Jake's immature muscles to support adult bones.
During that growth spurt, he was held back in the sixth grade—a decision that would play a crucial role in Jake's ability to skip his senior season years later. Most high school seniors are 18 years old, or most turn 18 at some point in their senior season. Had Jake stayed in high school in 2016, he would've turned 19 on Nov. 23.
He is physically and mentally a year older than most college sophomores, and should he apply for the 2019 NFL draft as an eligible junior—he's also on track to graduate from South Carolina in three years—he will be 21 on the day his name is called.
Instead of sitting out a bowl game to save his body like Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey did last season, or dialing it back during his junior year to avoid the wear and tear (what former Gamecocks star Jadeveon Clowney was accused of doing), Bentley unknowingly addressed the issue before he ever stepped on a college field.
"There are only so many years in this game," South Carolina offensive coordinator Kurt Roper says. "Why not find a way to use them to your advantage?"
It's late afternoon on a crisp spring day in Columbia, thunderstorms are rolling in, and Muschamp is trying to beat the rain and get home to see his family. But he has to stop and talk a little longer about the player he says can change the fortunes of a program.
The player he says was voted MVP by his teammates after playing all of seven games last year.
"He's unbelievable," Muschamp says of Bentley. "I've never seen a guy positively affect people around him like he does. It's like talking to a coach."
There is irony in this moment, and it's not lost on Muschamp. For four seasons, he couldn't get consistent quarterback play at Florida, his dream job, and was fired because of it.
When asked where he'd be if he had a quarterback like Bentley at Florida, without hesitation he says, "Still in Gainesville."
But, he is quick to add, there aren't many like Bentley.
"He's mature beyond his years," he continues. "I do think guys graduating early from high school will become more prevalent, but it will be a case-by-case thing. Some guys are ready for it; some guys need another year of high school. And some of them need another four years of high school."
And still others, you wonder how in the world they got here so quickly.
Maybe the most impressive part to unknowingly finding the secret path to the NFL: Bentley really didn't do much to get there. He didn't play as a freshman in high school because he was rehabbing his knee, he played injured and limited as a sophomore and played a healthy season as a junior.
Think about that: Bentley has played one full season in the last four; this season, if he stays healthy, will make it two of five.
"His ceiling is so high. He's not even close to scratching his potential," says former South Carolina quarterback Perry Orth, last year's starter, who now runs QB1 Athletics, a training and development center for middle school, high school and college quarterbacks—and the one player Bentley credits with his successful transition. "Once he starts putting together back-to-back complete seasons and he learns more and more about the game, forget it. It going to be ridiculous."
Earlier this summer, Muschamp brought Bentley to SEC Media Days in Birmingham, Alabama. The annual four-day media circus is usually reserved for upperclassmen and for players coaches believe have earned the right to speak for the program.
Bentley had played seven career games at South Carolina, and already he was the face of the program.
"I flip on the television," says the NFL scout with the secret plan, "and I see this kid who hasn't played but a handful of games carrying himself like a 25-year-old man. If he were on any of the elite SEC teams, he'd be all anyone was talking about."
When told what the NFL scout said, Muschamp says without hesitation, "Wait a couple years. He might get there yet."
Matt Hayes covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MattHayesCFB.