As a first grader, Shuler Bentley started at quarterback for his flag football team. The Byrnes senior quarterback now plays for his dad, Rebels coach Bobby Bentley, and seemingly the play call for his whole life thus far has been starting quarterback, team leader.
Northwestern quarterback Mason Rudolph came by the position rather differently. He was a freshman wide receiver at Westminster Catawba Christian Academy in 2010 , the same year Northwestern standout Justin Worley was picking apart South Carolina high school defenses like a microbiology student. With Worley graduating, Rudolph transferred to Northwestern before the next school year and took his first reps as a quarterback. Now in his senior year, Rudolphs rocket rise earned him a scholarship to Oklahoma State and a place in conversation next to Worley.
Different routes; same result. Bentley and Rudolphs comparison mirrors that of their teams. Both Byrnes (2-0, ranked No. 1 in Class AAAA) and Northwestern (3-0, ranked No. 2 in Class AAAA) run spread offenses and pummel opposing defenses relentlessly, and both have state championship expectations at the start of nearly every season. The façades may vary, but the results are basically the same for the states top two teams: lots of points and lots of wins.
Part of that may be because Northwestern coach Kyle Richardson and Bentley have often exchanged spread offense ideas.
A lot of their concepts are the same as our concepts, Richardson said after practice Wednesday. They probably take more shots deep; probably go a little more vertical than we do. We screen more than they do. Our run games are very similar, and the way we practice is very similar. Almost, honestly, two identical offenses.
When Byrnes and Northwestern meet Friday night at District Three Stadium, the two signal callers under center will likely have the biggest impact on the outcome of the biggest game in the state so far this season.
Each quarterback has advantages over the other. At 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, Rudolphs size is the most obvious difference. Hes got four rushing touchdowns so far this season, all coming from the 1-yard line.
Hes a big athlete, Bobby Bentley said. He creates a lot of problems with his size and athleticism. Its hard for the defense to tackle him. Hes a good mover in the pocket; its hard to hem him up and he makes things happen on the run.
Another reason its so hard to pressure Rudolph is the Trojans Air Raid offense. Northwestern elevates dinking and dunking to the highest form, patiently taking what the defense allows. The Trojans average eight yards per pass attempt, and 10 per completion, helping Rudolph hit on nearly 75 percent of his throws through three games this season.
Though not as physically gifted, at 6-foot, Shuler Bentley has advantages over his Northwestern counterpart, namely experience and intuition.
I think his strength as a player is his pre-snap read, said Ryan Bartow, a 247Sports national recruiting analyst. Hes got a good idea, knowing that defense, of where hes gonna go with the ball, and if thats taken away he can hit his second and third reads.
Bartow compared Shuler Bentley to the New Orleans Saints Drew Brees in the way that he compensates for less than desired height in other areas. That stems from being the consummate coachs son.
Hes always talking ball, said Bobby Bentley. He loves to constantly think about how to get better.
Teams most fear Byrnes big play propensity. Shuler Bentleys sugar-sweet football touch is the scary part.
The impressive thing about him is the throws that he can make into tight coverage, the throws that he can make vertically and just drop them right in where guys are covered, said Richardson. Hes a tough kid that stands in the pocket and doesnt mind pressure, and as the pressure is coming hes finding a way to put that tight ball in there in tight spaces. Thats pretty impressive that a high school kid can have that type of composure and make those kinds of throws.
At over 18 yards per completion, Bentleys team likes to sling it toward the end zone. In an 82-49 win over Woodruff last weekend, the Rebels quarterback threw a state-record nine touchdown passes, and ran in a 10th.
Both kids will continue their careers after high school. Bentley, who threw for a state record 59 touchdown passes last year despite playing much of the season with a dislocated shoulder, is committed to Old Dominion. Rudolph, the more promising prospect of the pair due to his size and rawness, committed to Oklahoma State last May, opting for the Cowboys over Virginia Tech and LSU.
Its all in front of him, Bartow said of Rudolph. Once he fills into his frame and hes 6-foot-4, 230, hell have more strength to make the deeper throws. Hes scratching the surface in regards of that.
Theyve got pretty throwing motions and gaudy statistics. Outside of their physical builds, Rudolph and Bentley are extremely alike. What then will decide Friday nights ballgame?
Last seasons scintillating matchup, a 32-28 Byrnes win, came down to mere inches. The Rebels defense stuffed Rudolph on a fourth down to seal the win, after the Trojans had already fumbled on the goal line earlier in the game.
Theres gonna be two or three plays that are probably gonna decide the game, said Richardson. First quarter, second quarter, third quarter if you make those plays then maybe you dont have to worry about a play with 30 seconds left.
McCormick: 329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T