There were some standout seasons by freshmen around the SEC in 2016. But not every first-year player had the same type of success as Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts or Kentucky running back Benny Snell Jr. Some still contributed to their teams, some were busts and others have yet to make an impact.
But one thing can be certain — there are some freshmen who will be poised to have breakout seasons when they return to the gridiron next fall as sophomores.
We take a look at five soon-to-be sophomores who could have breakout seasons in 2017:
Shea Patterson, Ole Miss QB
Nobody can deny that Patterson is the quarterback of the future for Ole Miss. And originally, 2017 would have been his freshman season, as the plan was for him to redshirt in 2016.
But controversially, the Rebels removed Patterson’s redshirt when Chad Kelly suffered a season-ending injury vs. Georgia Southern on Nov. 5. Patterson won his debut against Texas A&M the following week, passing for 338 yards and 2 touchdowns.
In his three starts, Patterson totaled 880 yards and 6 touchdowns. The former 5-star recruit will be poised for even more than that in 2017, based off what he showed in his brief 2016 stint.
Devwah Whaley, Arkansas RB
Playing behind the guy who led the SEC in rushing yards during the regular season is a good way to learn during your freshman season. That was the case for Whaley, who was behind Rawleigh Williams III (1,326 yards during regular season) on the Arkansas depth chart.
But Whaley still received his share of carries (110 in all) and showed he has the potential to contribute to the Razorbacks’ offense, even with Williams returning as a junior next season.
Whaley rushed for 602 yards and 3 touchdowns, surpassing the 100-yard mark twice — Oct. 1 vs. Alcorn State and Nov. 19 against Mississippi State. When Whaley got his chance, he delivered, which leads us to believe the former 4-star recruit should get even more touches in 2017.
Jacob Eason, Georgia QB
Georgia has an outstanding freshman class heading to campus in 2017, which is currently ranked No. 3 in the nation behind perennial powerhouses Alabama and Ohio State. But the Bulldogs’ success next season may depend on their quarterback.
Eason had a solid freshman campaign, passing for 2,430 yards and 16 touchdowns. He finished his first season by leading Georgia to a 31-23 win against TCU in the Liberty Bowl.
With all of the top recruits coming in, and the return of standout running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, Eason should flourish in his second season. Perhaps that will even lead to the Bulldogs competing in the SEC East in 2017.
Tyrie Cleveland, Florida WR
Cleveland wasn’t involved much in Florida’s offense early in 2016, missing the opener vs. UMass because of a suspension and the North Texas game with a hamstring injury. He caught only 3 passes through the first five games, and he never caught more than 3 passes in any contest.
But Cleveland did enough to prove he should be a breakout candidate for 2017. On Nov. 19, Cleveland had 124 receiving yards and a touchdown in a 16-10 win at LSU, his biggest game of the season. His score came on a 98-yard strike from Austin Appleby on a play where he shed a Tigers defender to make the catch and used his speed to reach the end zone.
Cleveland should see more passes in 2017, which could bode well for him and Florida’s offense.
Anfernee Jennings, Alabama LB
It seems Alabama just continues to produce standout defensive studs, doesn’t it? Well, next season it could be Jennings playing a key role on the Crimson Tide’s strong defense.
Jennings, a former 4-star recruit, made 19 tackles in 2016, including one in each of Alabama’s College Football Playoff games. He was a breakout candidate entering 2016 for the Tide, and while that didn’t quite happen, it’s too early to give up on this linebacker.
And let’s be realistic — Jennings had some of the best linebackers in the country to learn from this season, so it would only make sense that he improves in 2017.