There is no position in football where experience matters more than at quarterback.
Most quarterbacks don’t begin to consistently excel until they invest a few years at the college level. In rare instances, however, talent can overcome a player’s lack of experience and lead to early success.
The SEC had four freshmen who were talented enough to shine at quarterback in 2016, and they could be headed for even bigger things as sophomores. Over the years, there have been some standout performances from sophomore quarterbacks.
Jacob Eason, Jake Bentley, Jalen Hurts and Shea Patterson are all capable of putting together a run that would earn them a spot on this list, but it won’t be easy. If one of them passes for 3,000 yards in 2017, he will become just the 10th sophomore quarterback in SEC history to reach that mark.
As this quartet prepares for Year 2, we look back at the 10 best seasons by sophomore quarterbacks in SEC history.
Because of the subjective nature of such a list, these spots were awarded based solely on passing yard totals. Also, a player must have been playing in the SEC at the time of his sophomore season to be eligible, meaning Chase Daniel’s 2006 season at Missouri and Todd Ellis’ 1987 season at South Carolina are excluded.
Here we go.
No. 10: Bo Wallace, Ole Miss (2012)
Sophomore stats: 235/368 (63.9%), 2,994 YDs, 22 TDs, 17 INTs; rushing: 143 Att., 390 YDs, 8 TDs
The lone member of this list who didn’t top 3,000 passing yards, Wallace is still a record-setting quarterback who had a very good sophomore season. In his first year with the Rebels, Wallace had the best statistical season of any Ole Miss quarterback since Eli Manning. His 2012 season was the worst year of Wallace’s career with the Rebels, which should speak to how good his three-year stretch was.
No. 9: Aaron Murray, Georgia (2011)
Sophomore stats: 238/403 (59.1%), 3,149 YDs, 35 TDs, 14 INTs; rushing: 87 Att., 111 YDs, 2 TDs
While Murray’s career stats place him at the top of the SEC record books in several categories, his resilience and composure have always defined his time at Georgia. No season represents Murray’s demeanor more than his sophomore year. After dropping the first two games against ranked opponents, both Murray and Mark Richt drew the ire of the fan base. Murray and the Bulldogs responded with 10 straight wins, however, and he led the SEC in touchdown passes, setting a school record, while finishing second in passing yards.
No. 8: Chris Leak, Florida (2004)
Sophomore stats: 238/399 (59.6%), 3,197 YDs, 29 TDs, 12 INTs; rushing: 61 Att., 79 YDs, 2 TDs
Leak is probably one of the most underrated quarterbacks in SEC history. The Florida quarterback did his best to help the program bridge the gap between Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, otherwise known as the Ron Zook Years, and had a breakout sophomore campaign. Leak led the SEC in passing yards and touchdowns in 2004. Another lackluster record led to Zook’s firing, and some lumped the Gators’ quarterback into their frustration, but Leak’s sophomore year remains one of the conference’s best.
No. 7: Dusty Bonner, Kentucky (1999)
Sophomore stats: 303/465 (65.2%), 3,266 YDs, 26 TDs, 13 INTs; rushing: 111 Att., -141 YDs, 3 TDs
The man charged with taking over at quarterback following Tim Couch’s departure to the NFL, Bonner thrived in Hal Mumme’s wide-open offense. As a redshirt sophomore, Bonner became the second Kentucky quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in a season. Bonner led the SEC in both passing yards and touchdowns in his lone season as the Wildcats’ starter.
No. 6: Tim Tebow, Florida (2007)
Sophomore stats: 234/350 (66.9%), 3,286 YDs, 32 TDs, 6 INTs; rushing: 210 Att., 895 YDs, 23 TDs
In his first full season as Florida’s starting quarterback, Tebow put together the best season of his college career and one of the best in SEC history. Despite questions about his ability as a passer, Tebow became the first quarterback in NCAA history with at least 20 passing and 20 rushing touchdowns in the same season. Tebow finished with the nation’s second-highest passer efficiency rating (177.8) and became the first underclassman to win the Heisman Trophy.
No. 5: Drew Lock, Missouri (2016)
Sophomore stats: 237/434 (54.6%), 3,399 YDs, 23 TDs, 10 INTs; rushing: 52 Att., 123 YDs, 1 TD
Few people outside of Missouri knew of Lock heading into last season, but he made a name for himself with a tremendous sophomore year. Lock fell just shy of the SEC lead in passing yards in 2016, but he seemed unstoppable at times, including two games in which he threw for 400-plus yards and five touchdowns. Missouri’s defense forced the Tigers to play in a lot of shootouts, and Lock did his best to keep them in each contest.
Drew Lock find J'Mon Moore again for the TD! pic.twitter.com/KylNuhUjDR
— ZouGifs (@ZouCast) September 18, 2016
No. 4: Ryan Mallett, Arkansas (2009)
Sophomore stats: 225/403 (55.8%), 3,624 YDs, 30 TDs, 7 INTs; rushing: 58 Att., -29 YDs, 2 TDs
While Tebow easily drew most of the attention among SEC quarterbacks, it was Mallett who dominated the stat sheet in 2009. The towering 6-foot-7 Arkansas quarterback led the SEC with 3,624 passing yards and 30 touchdowns. He was the only quarterback in the SEC to throw five or more touchdown passes in three games.
No. 3: Tim Couch, Kentucky (1997)
Sophomore stats: 363/547 (66.4%), 3,884 YDs, 37 TDs, 19 INTs; rushing: 67 Att., 134 YDs, 3 TDs
The name Tim Couch might not mean much to the newer generation of college football fans, but he was one of the SEC’s original gunslingers. As a sophomore, Couch led one of the highest-scoring offenses in the country and threw for a then-SEC record 3,884 yards with 37 touchdowns. Couch set multiple school records in 1997, and he followed it up with an even more impressive junior campaign for one of the best two-year stretches an SEC quarterback has ever had.
No. 2: Rex Grossman, Florida (2001)
Sophomore stats: 259/395 (65.6%), 3,896 YDs, 34 TDs, 12 INTs; rushing: 34 Att., 8 YDs, 5 TDs
To this day, there are fans who firmly believe Grossman should have won the 2001 Heisman Trophy instead of Nebraska’s Eric Crouch. The Florida quarterback posted eye-popping numbers and led the nation in yards per attempt (9.9) and passer efficiency rating (170.8). At the time, his 3,896 yards were second only to Tim Couch’s 4,275 yards from 1998 in the SEC record books. Even more impressive is that Grossman put up those numbers against a schedule that including six ranked teams.
No. 1: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M (2013)
Sophomore stats: 300/429 (69.9%), 4,114 YDs, 37 TDs, 13 INTs; rushing: 144 Att., 759 YDs, 9 TDs
Coming off of his spectacular debut, in which he became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, all eyes were on Manziel and the Aggies. While he didn’t match the atmospheric numbers of his first season, Manziel put together another memorable year with career highs in passing yards, passing touchdowns and completion percentage, among others. He finished just 161 yards shy of Tim Couch’s 1998 single-season SEC record for passing yardage.