Is the '06 class of quarterbacks the best to ever play the college game?
By Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden)
It is the dead of winter in East Brady, Penn. The calendar is about to flip to 1979 and Joe Paterno is sitting in your living room. He says something to the effect of "We love you kid. Here is a scholarship. Come to Penn State and we will make you a star linebacker!" A chance to play the position at Linebacker U? Who wouldn’t jump at that opportunity?
There is only one issue: Jim Kelly is a quarterback. So after a brief conversation with his brother Pat — who was playing in the NFL at the time — Kelly decided to accept a scholarship to play quarterback for the Miami Hurricanes. In his first career start, Kelly led the Canes to a 26-10 victory over the Nittany Lions in State College. Four Super Bowl appearances, 35,000 yards and one very infamous wide right later, Kelly took his rightful place in Canton.
Back in 1979 and not even 60 miles away in Pittsburgh, another young signal caller was making waves of his own. Dan Marino’s buggy-whip release was causing college scouts everywhere to giggle like schoolgirls. As a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, Marino led the Panthers to victory over rival West Virginia in the Backyard Brawl. Two years later, a touchdown pass to John Brown with less than a minute to play — arguably the greatest play in Pitt sports history — capped the comeback against Georgia in the 1982 Sugar Bowl. The honors, records and statistics of his NFL career got Marino enshrined in the Hall Of Fame.
Back to ’79, and this time over 3,000 miles away, a quarterback was garnering unprecedented coverage as a high school athlete. John Elway played two seasons at Granada Hills High School (Granada Hills, Calif.) and was easily the No. 1 recruit in the nation. Widely considered the best athlete ever assembled, Elway received at least 60 scholarship offers that year. He signed with Stanford to play baseball and football, winning multiple Pac-10 Player of the Year awards, and was a major part of ‘The Game’ with rival Cal in 1982. Two Super Bowl championships later, he, too, sits in Canton as arguably the best quarterback to ever play the game.
The college and NFL resumes of the Hall of Fame class of ’78 are remarkable and will likely never be repeated by a single class. Historically, the 1978 high school class of quarterbacks stands alone and is clearly the best of all time. Things are a bit different these days. Quarterbacks transfer at an alarming rate and head to the NFL early. Kids are exposed to the media throngs and fan bases at a much earlier age. Recruiting services now rank thousands of prospects in an effort to predict the future. I am positive that Marino was not watching internet video of Elway in 1978.
So in the modern era of football recruiting, which quarterback class is the best? The answer to this question is authoritatively 2006.
In the 2008 BCS title game, Tim Tebow got the better of Sam Bradford in Miami to win his second national championship (to go along with his '07 Heisman Trophy). Tebow was the dual-threat recruit in ‘06 (despite what his FRS commercial says) and he went on to be one of the most decorated college quarterbacks of all time. He owns a share of the single season mark for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 22 scores in ’07. Tebow rushed for an SEC record 57 TDs over his career. In 985 passing attempts, he threw only 15 career interceptions and ended his career with a 176.0 QB rating. He passed for 9,286 yards and 88 passing TDs to go with 2,947 yards and 57 TDs on the ground.
Bradford, a much lower-rated prospect coming out of high school, also has a Heisman Trophy on his resume. Despite missing most of his final season, Bradford went on to become the first overall pick in the NFL Draft and had a stellar rookie season for the St. Louis Rams. He was the No. 12-rated pro-style quarterback in the ’06 class. In only two full seasons, Bradford shattered every major Sooner passing record - as well as some NCAA records. He owns all three yardage records: single game (468), single-season (4,720) and career (8,403). He owns the single-season (50) and career passing touchdown records (88). He also has the two most efficient seasons in Sooner history - both of which ended in Big 12 Championships.
The only quarterback Tebow trailed in the recruiting rankings in ’06 was Matt Stafford. The Georgia gunslinger was 27-7 as a starter and went 3-0 in bowl games, including a BCS Bowl win over Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. He was the first overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions. He finished with 7,731 yards and 51 touchdowns passing while in Athens.
Kansas State’s Josh Freeman, while not possessing an elite resume, also landed in the first round of the NFL Draft and has quickly blossomed into one of the better young arms in the NFL. The enormous signal caller (6'6", 248) finished with over 8,000 yards passing and a total of 64 touchdowns (20 rushing) as an amateur. Freeman was the No. 4 pro-style quarterback in the ’06 class.
Alabama's Greg McElroy and TCU's Andy Dalton both claimed conference championships, led undefeated teams and won BCS bowl games. McElroy visited the top of the mountain in his first year as the starter, winning the 2009 National Championship. He finished 24-3 as a starter in Tuscaloosa and was drafted in the seventh round of the 2011 NFL Draft (although he is destined for greatness as a TV analyst). Dalton finished his career with an astonishing 42-7 record as the starter in Fort Worth and is the all-time leader in total offense for not only TCU history but Mountain West Conference history as well (11,925 yards). His 10,314 passing yards and 71 passing TDs are both school records. He added 22 rushing touchdowns and 1,611 rushing yards as well. Dalton was selected early in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Washington’s Jake Locker, Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick, Illinois’ Juice Williams and Florida State's Christian Ponder are all members of the class of 2006 as well. In 2007, Williams took the Illini to their first Rose Bowl berth since 1984, and he finished his career with 8,037 yards passing, 2,557 rushing yards and 74 total touchdowns. Williams was the No. 3-rated pro-style passer in the ’06 quarterback rankings.
Kaepernick burst onto the scene two seasons ago in the highest scoring game in NCAA history: a 69-67 loss to Boise State. The lanky scrambler rushed for 177 yards and two touchdowns in that game. He added 243 yards passing and three more scores through the air. In his first full season as a starter, ‘Crazy Legs’ Kaepernick posted 2,849 passing yards, 1,130 rushing yards and 39 touchdowns (17 rushing). He went on to have one of the best statistical careers in the history of college football. Kaepernick ended his career with 14,210 yards of total offense (10,098 passing, 4,112 rushing), 82 passing touchdowns against only 24 interceptions and 59 rushing touchdowns. Crazy Legs was drafted early in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers.
Locker’s career in Seattle has unfortunately been plagued by coaching turnover and injuries. After a very promising freshman season — 2,062 passing yards and 986 rushing yards — Locker missed most of his sophomore year with a thumb injury. With quarterback-friendly head coach Steve Sarkisian, a healthy Locker led the Huskies to the school's first bowl win since the 2001 Rose Bowl when U of W upset Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl last fall. He finished his career with 7,639 yards passing, 53 touchdowns, 1,939 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns. Locker was the No. 4-rated dual-threat quarterback in the class of ’06 and was selected by the Tennessee Titans with the eighth overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
Christian Ponder led the Seminoles to bowl wins over Wisconsin and South Carolina while energizing the Florida State offense for the first time since Chris Weinke. Despite battling injuries for much of his career, Ponder led the Seminoles back to the ACC Championship game as a senior and was selected with the 12th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Vikings. He finished his career with 6,872 yards passing, 49 touchdowns, 833 rushing yards and 10 more scores on the ground.
Iowa’s Ricky Stanzi forced the much higher-rated Jake Christiensen to transfer and led the Iowa Hawkeyes to a BCS Bowl win over Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. His penchant for fourth quarter heroics helped him to an 18-4 record as the starter, including 19 straight games with a TD pass. He finished his career with 7,377 yards and 56 touchdowns. Stanzi was drafted in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs.
Returning to the Jayhawk State, Todd Reesing finished his career as the most productive passer in Kansas history. He is the only Jayhawk to lead his team to a BCS bowl game (and win). He threw for a school-record 11,194 yards and 90 touchdowns - adding 646 rushing yards and 15 more scores on the ground - in three full seasons as a starter. His 25-13 record included a 76-point blowout of Nebraska. While Reesing was never a pro prospect like many of the names above, his success in college is no less impressive. Reesing was the No. 16 dual-threat quarterback in the class of ’06.
Another player who took his program to unprecedented heights was Ball State’s Nate Davis. The Bellaire (Ohio) native led his Cardinals to back-to-back bowl appearances. One has to keep this accomplishment in perspective. In 82 years of playing football, Ball State had been to a total of three bowl games (’65, ’89, ’93), and Davis led them to two straight. Davis left early for the NFL after his junior season.
The list of stars from the '06 class is not limited to just the superpowers of college football. Duke’s Thaddeus Lewis finished with a school-record 10,065 passing yards and 67 touchdowns. Lewis was the No. 10 rated dual-threat prospect in 2006.
If you are counting at home, that makes three BCS national championships, two Heisman Trophies, seven BCS Bowl wins and six first round NFL Draft picks. The Class of 2006 also includes the best quarterbacks in Florida, Oklahoma, TCU, Kansas, Nevada, Duke, Kansas State and Ball State school history.
While there may not be three NFL Hall of Famers in this class, it is safe to say this is the best collection of college quarterbacks to ever come out of one recruiting class in history.
Other ’06 Notables
Kevin Riley, Cal
Austen Arnaud, Iowa State
Jevan Snead, Ole Miss/Texas
Adam Weber, Minnesota
Zack Frazer, UConn
Justin Burke, Louisville
Brian Anderson, Marshall