The SEC's 10 best true freshmen of the last 5 years
Imagine walking into the SEC and dominating from the jump. Now wake up, because for 99.99999% of us, that’s much more dream than reality.
But for that teeny, tiny select group of true freshmen, that was reality. They made plays, or they paved the way for guys who could make plays.
That’s not an easy thing to do for a 5th-year senior, much less a true freshman.
Today, and really all week here at SDS, we’re talking about the SEC’s best true freshmen in the last 5 years. No redshirt freshmen here.
As always when it comes to ranking players who play different positions on this list, yes, it comes back to impact. How did you impact your team’s ability to win games? You might have good numbers, but if they’re skewed because of 1 cupcake week performance, those numbers are a bit hollow.
The SEC’s 10 best true freshmen of the last 5 years are on this list because they each became an integral part of their team’s success. This wasn’t an easy list to narrow, so assume that, yes, we’ll probably hurt some feelings today.
Here are the SEC’s 10 best true freshmen of the last 5 years (2016-20):
10. John Rhys Plumlee, Ole Miss QB (2019)
Plumlee was so fun to watch as a true freshman quarterback in 2019 that I had to make a conscious effort to stop using the word “electric” in every sentence I wrote/said about him. Yes, he had his limitations as a thrower. But Plumlee in Rich Rodriguez’s offense was a match made in heaven. We saw him set the Ole Miss freshman rushing record (1,023 yards), despite the fact that we only saw him in 9 games. But boy, were they memorable. Ask LSU fans about that:
No. 1 LSU got the win …
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) July 3, 2020
(Yes, I know who won that game. Still, though.)
Plumlee wasn’t a fit in Lane Kiffin’s offense, but you can’t teach some the things he did. He had a 100-yard rushing game in his first career start, which was at Alabama. In 5 of the basically 8 games that he got full reps, he ran for 100 yards. Plumlee turned heads as a true freshman, and he did so even without starting the year as QB1. Electric, he was.
9. Tank Bigsby, Auburn RB (2020)
Curse the injury gods for not giving us a full true freshman season of Tank. And well, too bad Chad Morris didn’t recognize how good Bigsby was until Week 3. When Bigsby was healthy and getting a full workload, he was a force. He had 4 games in which he hit the century mark, but perhaps more impressive was how he got there. With a less-than-stellar offensive line, Bigsby ranked No. 5 in FBS with 0.34 broken tackles per carry (via PFF). Bigsby broke tackles left and right.
The raw numbers could have been better (834 rushing yards, 5 TDs), but then again, he faced an all-SEC schedule and he was really only treated like a feature back for 5 games. There’s a reason Pro Football Focus tabbed Bigsby as the top returning running back in America for 2021. He was nothing short of spectacular as a true freshman.
8. Jonah Williams, Alabama OL (2016)
Williams was a true freshman All-American and a second-team All-SEC selection in 2016, which might not sound as impressive as it actually is when you consider he started from the jump at Alabama. That’s not easy. Williams solidified the right tackle spot and was a major reason why Alabama earned a second consecutive national championship berth.
According to Pro Football Focus, here were Williams’ total 2016 numbers:
- 1,019 snaps
- 510 pass-blocking snaps
- 509 run-blocking snaps
- 4 sacks allowed
- 3 QB hits allowed
- 8 hurries allowed
Yeah, that’s pretty darn good for a 19-year old slowing down edge-rushers in the SEC. It’ll come as no surprise that each of Williams’ 2 seasons in Tuscaloosa after that season ended by playing in a national championship. But the crazy thing? He wasn’t even the best true freshman on his own team that year (more on that in a bit).
7. Will Anderson, Alabama Edge (2020)
I’m gonna be honest. I didn’t give Anderson the credit he deserved for the year he had. Shoot, I still might be giving him enough credit. In the regular season alone, which was only 11 games, he had 52 (!) pressures. Anderson earned second-team All-SEC honors and he was a true freshman All-American by multiple publications. He was No. 3 in the SEC in sacks (7) and tackles for loss (10.5).
Rare is it that true freshmen start in Nick Saban’s front 7 by winning a job outright in camp. That’s how good Anderson was. And there wasn’t a freshman lull late in the season, either. He was dominant in the SEC Championship (2 sacks, 1 forced fumble), and he earned the team honor of best defensive player and best special teams player in the Playoff semifinal win against Notre Dame. You’re not supposed to walk into the SEC and dominate offensive linemen like that.
T6. Trayveon Williams, Texas A&M RB (2016) & Damarea Crockett, Mizzou RB (2016)
Yeah, I squeezed both guys in here at No. 6. Sue me. They finished their banner true freshman seasons in 2016 separated by a whopping 5 rushing yards. With the way Williams and Crockett ran, that was essentially 1 carry.
Crockett’s year didn’t get a ton of shine in part because a ridiculous 11 (!) SEC players finished with 1,000 rushing yards in 2016, including 3 true freshmen. It’s not often you see a true freshman rip off a 225-yard performance, which Crockett did in his last game of the season (he was suspended for the regular-season finale). The only thing preventing the explosive Mizzou back from being higher on this list is the fact that 70% of his touchdowns came against non-Power 5 schools, and 40% of his rushing yards came against FCS Delaware State, Middle Tennessee State and Vandy.
When we look back on the best SEC running backs of the 2010s, I feel like Williams’ name always gets left off. It’s probably because he didn’t play in a New Year’s 6 bowl, and he wasn’t a freakish NFL Draft prospect. But what Williams did in 2016 is worth serious praise. Williams broke A&M’s freshman rushing record with 1,057 yards on 6.8 yards per carry. Even as a freshman, he could hit the home run play and devastate a defense in the process:
— Derek (@DerekAggie06) September 18, 2016
Williams faded down the stretch a bit, which was basically the story of the Aggies in 2016. Still, he was a true freshman All-American who could take over a game in the blink of an eye.
5. Benny Snell, Kentucky RB (2016)
Snell yeah? Snell yeah.
So Snell didn’t even get a carry in Kentucky’s first 2 games, yet he still managed to rush for 1,091 yards and 13 touchdowns as a true freshman in the SEC. Snell, unlike the aforementioned Williams, hit his stride in the second half of the season. He had a 6-game stretch from October to November in which he racked up 759 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns, including a 38-carry, 192-yard performance against Mizzou.
In typical Kentucky fashion, at least during the Mark Stoops era, Snell went from overlooked 3-star recruit out of Ohio to a Bluegrass State sensation. Snell wasn’t even the high rusher on his team that year (Boom Williams had 1,170 yards), but he broke the program’s true freshman rushing record.
Here are the SEC true freshman rushing leaders from 2016-20:
- 1. Benny Snell (Kentucky), 1,091
- 2. Damarea Crockett (Mizzou), 1,062
- 3. Trayveon Williams (Texas A&M), 1,057
- 4. John Rhys Plumlee (Ole Miss), 1,023
- 5. Jalen Hurts (Alabama), 954
Snell’s single-season rushing total ranks No. 2 among SEC backs in the Playoff era behind only 2014 Nick Chubb (1,547).
4. Jaylen Waddle, Alabama WR (2018)
Waddle was such an explosive player as a true freshman that I almost want to go back to when Waddle was like, 14 or 15. Could he have gotten separation against SEC secondaries back then, too? I wouldn’t rule it out. Waddle’s ability to get open stood out in a receiver group that included 3 other (!) eventual first-round picks (I’m gonna assume DeVonta Smith is also ticketed for that).
The production wasn’t necessarily Amari Cooper freshman level (848 yards, 7 touchdowns), but he was also an elite return man, and he stretched the field for an Alabama team who suddenly did that at will in 2018. Also, consider this:
Most valuable season by a non-QB true freshman since 2014:
1. Derek Stingley Jr, LSU (2019)
2. Rondale Moore, Purdue (2018)
3. Jaylen Waddle, Alabama (2018) pic.twitter.com/8IoMPnf0ra
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) May 26, 2020
Waddle’s true freshman season grade (89.7) actually ranks No. 5 among all SEC receivers dating to 2014. You could make a case that he deserves to be even higher on this list, especially when you consider how unique of a weapon he was. So why only No. 4? Well, he only eclipsed 75 receiving yards in 2 of his 12 games against Power 5 competition. But make no mistake, Waddle burst onto the scene in a major way in 2018.
3. Jake Fromm, Georgia QB (2017)
I know, I know. You’re gonna tell me about how it was the running game and defense that got Georgia its first national championship berth since the Herschel Walker era. You’re gonna tell me that Fromm having fewer passing yards than Jake Bentley and not even averaging 20 pass attempts per game is why he doesn’t deserve to be this high on the list.
But while Fromm wasn’t the focal point of the offense by any means, he did his part when needed. He finished No. 2 in the SEC in yards per attempt and passer rating, all while posting a 24-7 TD-INT ratio. By the way, Fromm was No. 5 in FBS in quarterback rating. He was a blown Cover-2 from ending the 1980 jokes as a true freshman. Say what you want about the way Kirby Smart favored him over Justin Fields later, but what would Georgia’s 2017 season have been like had Fromm not stepped in and looked the part when Jacob Eason went down?
Don’t forget about just how much of a revelation Fromm was in 2017:
Just a reminder that Jake Fromm made this throw as a freshman… vs Alabama… in the national championship. pic.twitter.com/p6x8hofsKB
— All Things NFL (@AllThingsNFL__) September 25, 2019
2. Jalen Hurts, Alabama QB (2016)
Because winning SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a true freshman is just totally normal, right? Hurts wasn’t normal. He was the first Alabama true freshman to start at quarterback since 1984, and he was Nick Saban’s first true freshman starter at quarterback. And while he might not have consistently stretched the field at the level of his successors, Hurts was brilliant in his lone year with Lane Kiffin. Hurts broke the Alabama record for touchdowns accounted for (36) and he set the Alabama record for rushing yards by a quarterback. Here were Hurts’ ranks within the SEC:
- No. 4 in passing yards (2,780)
- No. 4 in passing touchdowns (23)
- T3 in rushing touchdowns (13)
- No. 12 in rushing (954)
Oh, and he was a Hunter Renfrow touchdown from winning a national championship. Hurts avoided mistakes (19 sacks taken in 15 games, 1 interception per 42 pass attempts) and made some monumental plays after beating out the elder Blake Barnett and Cooper Bateman for the starting job. Alabama was in position to repeat for the second time in the decade, and Hurts was a major part of that.
1. Derek Stingley, LSU CB (2019)
Sorry, Bo Nix. Nix has the trophy, but Stingley was the SEC True Freshman of the Year in 2019, and you can’t convince me otherwise. Stingley was the best defensive player on a team that’ll go down as the most dominant ever. Think about that. The guy was a consensus All-American as a true freshman, and not just because he was No. 5 in FBS with 6 interceptions. Stingley was as lockdown as it gets. He was No. 2 in FBS with 21 passes defended, and he forced 22 incompletions.
The Pro Football Focus numbers with Stingley were just absurd. He graded out as PFF’s most valuable non-quarterback of the Playoff era (DeVonta Smith broke that in 2020), and he had a 91.7 PFF grade, which was the best grade of any true freshman in the Playoff era. Anybody who watched Stingley saw that — with the exception of his lapse against the aforementioned Smith in the Alabama game — he was as solid as it gets at the position.
And perhaps of equal significance, he always seemed to come up with the big play. Whether that was the interception in the end zone against Florida, the 2-interception game in the SEC Championship or this pick in the Auburn game, Stingley had a knack for coming up when it counted:
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) October 26, 2019
There’s no doubt who deserves to be No. 1 on this list.
Grant Delpit (LSU), Isaiah Spiller (Texas A&M), Andrew Thomas (Georgia), Henry To’o To’o (Tennessee), Trey Smith (Tennessee), C.J. Henderson (Florida), Marlon Davidson (Auburn), Eli Ricks (LSU), Jerrion Ealy (Ole Miss), Jawaan Taylor (Florida), Emmanuel Forbes (MSU), Malachi Moore (Alabama).