Alabama football: Losing Jaylen Waddle obviously hurts, but Tide have more NFL prospects ready to roll
Folks around the country who only pay attention college football on fall Saturdays glanced at their television Saturday night, saw that Alabama lost receiver Jaylen Waddle for the season and chuckled “well, there goes the Crimson Tide in 2020 …”
Those who know better, of course, pay attention to stuff like recruiting season — the unofficial 3rd season of college football following the fall season and the spring season. Those folks? They know that the “next man up” cliche isn’t just a clever play on words at Alabama.
For the Crimson Tide, “next man up” usually means another 4- or 5-star is all taped up and ready to perform.
“The guy is a great player,” Saban said of Waddle, who was flown via private jet Saturday night from Knoxville to Birmingham and was expected to have season-ending surgery on his broken right ankle.
“He’s a great teammate. He’s an exciting player to watch. I hate it that people in college football can’t see a great player the rest of this season, but we had some other guys step up tonight and it will create an opportunity for somebody else. We’re going to coach the players that we have, and do the best we can to try to get better.”
No. 2 Alabama showed that embarrassing depth before Waddle was even carted out of sight Saturday afternoon in Knoxville, as Slade Bolden — who up to that point had been more of a trivia answer to the common Tide fan than a viable offensive weapon — was tapped to run a full game’s worth of meaningful routes.
Bolden delivered, albeit naturally without quite the same level of explosiveness that Waddle made his hallmark. Still, the sophomore from West Monroe, La., came through with 6 receptions for 94 yards. The half-dozen catches doubled the amount of times he has touched the ball since arriving at the Capstone (4 carries, 2 receptions in 2019), and the yardage trailed only John Metchie’s 151 in the game.
Bolden did fumble the rock once, as Tennessee safety Trevon Flowers punched the ball out of Bolden’s arm with precision as Bolden was headed to the ground early in the 3rd quarter. and Bolden was unable to find the handle on a Bryce Young fastball in tight quarters late in the game once the outcome was well decided and most of the assembled at Neyland Stadium were headed for their corn-in-a-jar refreshments.
“We need some of our young guys — this is one of the things that, not having a couple of games outside the SEC where you can play some of these guys … we’re going to have to have some of those guys step up and be ready to play,” Saban said. “And they have really gotten much experience.”
Metchie, of course, had already broken out before Alabama’s journey to the Third Saturday in October. His 7-catch, 151-yard day against the Volunteers marked his second triple-digit performance this season, and the Brampton, Canada, native averages 23.8 yards per catch with 21 receptions in his 1st season as a starter.
“He’s a strong receiver he’s got good quickness he’s got really strong hands,” Saban said of Metchie. “I think he’s a smart guy. He really plays the game well, pays attention to detail runs good routes. And he’s fast. And he’s quick out of a break.”
Metchie confirmed postgame that the team learned of Waddle’s injury in the 1st quarter, but that it didn’t affect the task at hand.
“I think we did good,” Metchie said. “It’s part of the sport. Guys get banged up and it’s the next-man-up mentality in fighting through it as a unit and as a team.
“Of course, it’s tough hearing that with everything that’s going on as the game is going on, and having to hear that one of your brothers went down. But I think we responded well and were focusing on the most important thing, which is the next play at hand.”
In addition to Bolden and Metchie, Alabama also has a handful of freshman receivers who could be factors as the season rolls on. That includes Javon Baker (4-star), Traeshon Holden (4-star) and Thaiu Jones-Bell (4-star). Holden is the only 1 of the 3 who has played, getting on the field late Saturday night. Redshirt sophomore Xavier Williams (4-star) is also an option on the depth chart.
Ultimately, though, replacing Waddle will fall most on the shoulders of DeVonta Smith. The senior’s 556 receiving yards only trail Waddle’s total by 3 feet. and Smith — who is the final remaining jewel in the 2017 WR recruiting class that also produced current NFL standouts Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy — has 45 receptions to Metchie’s 21.
No matter the calculus involved in replacing Waddle’s 557 receiving yards for the rest of season, it will still be nearly impossible to make a 1-for-1 switch for a talent that racked up 100-yard efforts in each of Alabama’s first 4 games of 2020 and was a threat to score anytime opponents kicked his way.
Alabama will be forced to figure it out quickly, too, as visiting Mississippi State is up next week boasting statistically the league’s best passing defense.
Next man — or men — up.