South Carolina is being viewed by many as the fastest rising program in the SEC East this offseason. Much of that talk comes from the initial impression left by quarterback Jake Bentley. After sitting out half the 2016 season while heading for a redshirt year, the Gamecocks decided to burn his redshirt during the bye week and were rewarded with an upset win over Tennessee and ultimately a trip to the Birmingham Bowl following a stretch of winning four of five games.

Now with expectations being heaped on not only Bentley but his South Carolina team as a whole, the big question in Columbia is how the Gamecocks handle the praise. Despite all the praise being thrown at the Gamecock program this offseason, thanks in large part to some very promising skill position players on offense and the return of outstanding linebacker Skai Moore, there remain several areas lacking both talent and depth on the roster — most notably both lines of scrimmage and at linebacker.

While those will be issues heading into 2017, thanks to the progression of the team’s starting quarterback, the Gamecocks may have an edge at the game’s most important position week in and week out. According to South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp, Bentley has taken the hot start to his college career and followed that up with further development this spring.

Thanks to a better understanding of the offense’s concepts and protection schemes, Muschamp expects even better results from Bentley in his sophomore campaign.

“Well I think as much as anything, the game starts to slow down for you at that position,” Muschamp said recently to reporters. “People don’t realize how difficult it is to play as a freshman, much less a high school senior. He did a phenomenal job. He has really good people around him, he understands that, but I think his taking the next step is being able to get us out of a bad run game, which he can do now. Change a protection, get us out of a better pass situation. All of those things he continues to make strides.”

In Bentley’s first three games of his career, against UMass, Tennessee, and Mizzou, he threw for 622 yards, six touchdowns, and no interceptions. His performances were less impressive against the better defenses of Florida and Clemson but if what Muschamp says is accurate, the Gamecocks should be better equipped to handle a very underrated defensive front of N.C. State in the Sept. 2 season opener.