ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — A long list of national high school honors made Jacob Eason appear bound for immediate success at Georgia as a freshman in 2016.
The reality of making that big step from high school in Lake Stevens, Washington, to the Southeastern Conference was far different.
Sure, Eason's right arm was as powerful as advertised. Arm strength wasn't enough to make his freshman season a success.
He had to learn a Georgia playbook that seemed massive. He struggled to manage a huddle when looking into the faces of upperclassmen. He couldn't immediately make all the right decisions and call all the right plays.
"Last year, I was a younger guy and I was trying to keep my head above the water," Eason said this week.
Eason has renewed confidence. He said starting the final 12 games of Georgia's 8-5 season will make a big difference in 2017.
Coach Kirby Smart, also entering his second season, sees a more mature quarterback this year.
"I think Jacob is a great quarterback," Smart said Tuesday. "I think he's somebody that understands our system. He works really hard at it. Jacob comes in and meets extra every chance he gets."
Similar votes of confidence have come from Eason's teammates.
"I think he's a lot more confident," said senior offensive guard Dyshon Sims. "He understands the offense a lot better and I think we understand it better, too. Understanding things gives you a lot more confidence. I'm excited to see him play."
Eason passed for 2,430 yards with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions last season. He threw a last-minute, game-winning TD pass — his third of the game — in an early season win over Missouri. His low points included two interceptions with only 139 yards passing in a loss to Georgia Tech to end the regular season.
Eason is the clear starter, though he has been pushed by freshman Jake Fromm. Senior Brice Ramsey announced plans to transfer but changed his mind, and his presence provides experience behind Eason.
"This year, I have more comfort in our schemes and our playbook," Eason said. "I feel like I can line guys up, I can tell them what to do, I can help them out when they run a wrong route, that kind of thing. I think having a year under my belt has definitely been a big improvement in my leadership and I'm only going to improve from here."
Other things to watch in Georgia's season:
TAILBACK TANDEM: Perhaps the two best reasons for Eason to begin his sophomore season with renewed confidence were the decisions by tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to return for their senior seasons. The two combined to run for almost 2,000 yards last season.
At this time last year, Chubb was making a comeback from major knee surgery and Michel was recovering from a broken forearm. Each should be healthy to start this season, and a more consistent passing attack would make it more difficult for defenses to focus on stopping the run.
HIGH EXPECTATIONS: The strong running game led by Chubb and Michel helped convince media to pick Georgia to win the SEC East. The Bulldogs return 10 starters on defense and most of their top playmakers on offense. A key will be replacing three starters on the offensive line.
KEY GAMES: A visit to Tennessee on Sept. 30 will be an important early test in the SEC East. Georgia also plays SEC road games at Vanderbilt on Oct. 7 and at Auburn on Nov. 11. As always, the Oct. 28 game against Florida in Jacksonville, Florida, will define the season for many fans. Smart can't afford a second straight loss to Georgia Tech in the Nov. 25 final regular-season game.
PREDICTION: Georgia should improve by one win to finish 9-4 overall and 5-3 for another second-place finish in the SEC East.
SEASON OPENER: The Bulldogs open at home against Appalachian State on Sept. 2. They will have to avoid looking ahead to a road game at Notre Dame the following week.
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