Alabama football: The 10 best seasons by Crimson Tide true freshmen since 2016
Over the next week at Saturday Down South, we’re taking a look at the best true freshman seasons at each SEC school over the last 5 years (2016-2020).
Alabama recently inked the greatest recruiting class in modern history, signing 7 composite 5-stars, per 247Sports — the other SEC West programs combined to sign 3.
The Tide added size (among others: offensive tackles JC Latham, Tommy Brockermeyer and defensive tackle Damon Payne), speed (5-star corner Ga’Quincy McKinstry, 5-star tailback Camar Wheaton, 4-star safety Terrion Arnold), tons of playmaking talent (blue-chip wideouts Jacorey Brooks, Agiye Hall and JoJo Earle) and more pass rushing help (5-star outside linebacker Dallas Turner and 4-star Keanu Koht).
A few of these dudes could totally find themselves on a similar list to this in coming years. For now, here are the best 10 true freshman seasons (in no particular order) by a Crimson Tide player since 2016.
QB Tua Tagovailoa
Arguably the best quarterback in school history, Tagovailoa attempted just 77 passes during his freshman season in 2017, yet the southpaw quarterback led the Tide to a national championship with his second half/overtime performance in the dramatic win over Georgia.
Throughout the season, Tagovailoa’s family and friends pined for the quarterback to take over the starting job from Jalen Hurts, and after teasing his potential in games against Vanderbilt, Tennessee and others, the Hawaiian native finally got his chance with the Tide trailing the Bulldogs 13-0 at halftime.
Nick Saban benched Hurts for Tagovailoa, who went on to throw 3 touchdowns, including the game-winner to freshman wideout DeVonta Smith on 2nd-and-26 in overtime.
On the year, Tagoviloa had 13 total touchdowns (11 passing).
QB Jalen Hurts
Although Hurts ultimately saw his career overshadowed by Tagovailoa, the Texas native delivered one of the most impressive freshman quarterback seasons in SEC history.
He didn’t start Alabama’s season-opener in 2016, but after replacing Blake Barnett, Hurts quickly became Nick Saban (and new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s) guy at quarterback. He led the Tide to 14 straight wins before a devastating loss to Clemson in the national title game. Hurts scored on a 30-yard run with 2:07 left to give Bama a 31-28 lead, but the Tide couldn’t hold on.
Hurts finished his freshman season earning SEC Player of the Year honors after throwing 23 touchdowns to 9 interceptions, completing 63% of his passes and adding 954 yards rushing, a single-season record for a SEC quarterback, along with 13 touchdowns.
OLB Will Anderson
Alabama’s Jack linebacker showed up to Tuscaloosa in 2020 as a ready-made instant impact freshman pass rusher.
The former 5-star recruit started all 13 games at outside linebacker, stuffing the stat sheet with sacks (7.0) and tackles for loss (10.5).
As a first-year starter, the 6-4, 235-pound edge rusher actually led the SEC in hurries (36) and quarterback hits (16), according to Pro Football Focus.
OT Jonah Williams
The future All-American and 1st-round draft pick made his presence felt immediately in Tuscaloosa in 2016, quickly winning the right tackle job in fall camp and starting all 15 games as a freshman.
The 6-5, 300-pound lineman had 29 knockdown blocks on the season, per Alabama’s team site, and earned player of the week honors by the coaching staff 8 times.
LB Shane Lee
In 2019, Dylan Moses entered the season as one of the best linebackers in the nation.
But the Tide’s junior star tore his ACL midway through fall camp, pressing freshman linebacker Shane Lee into action.
While there were some natural hiccups throughout the season, Lee delivered a strong first-year campaign in Moses’ absence.
The 6-0, 250-pound thumper recorded 86 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and a pick for the Tide.
DB Malachi Moore
Moore is just 1 of 2 non Top-100 recruits on this list (Hurts being the other), yet the former Hewitt Trussville standout had one of the best freshman seasons of any defensive back in the Nick Saban Era.
The 6-foot, 180-pound corner earned Alabama’s starting “Star” spot in 2020, becoming a fixture in Pete Golding’s defense.
En route to a national title, Moore made his presence felt all over the field, recording 44 tackles, 3 interceptions, a fumble recovery for a touchdown, 4.0 tackles for loss and 6 pass breakups.
CB Patrick Surtain II
Unlike most on this list, Surtain didn’t have eye-popping raw statistics as a freshman in 2018, but the former 5-star recruit was just as impactful all the same.
The physical 6-2, 200-pound corner was a sticky defensive back from Day 1, earning a starting job he wouldn’t relinquish for 3 seasons.
As a freshman, Surtain tallied 37 tackles, 1 interception and 7 pass breakups, allowing just a single touchdown all season.
WR/PR Jaylen Waddle
After a couple of seasons teasing its newfound potential, Alabama’s offense truly reached historic heights in 2018, and Texas speedster Jaylen Waddle was a major reason.
While Jerry Jeudy (who just missed making this list after a nice 2017 debut) was Tagovailoa’s go-to guy, Waddle emerged as a very capable secondary playmaker.
In his first season in Crimson and White, the blazing 5-10 wideout had 41 receptions for 803 yards and 7 touchdowns, including a big touchdown in the win over Georgia in the SEC Championship Game to send Alabama back to the College Football Playoff.
In addition to his contributions as a receiver, Waddle was also one of the scariest punt returners in the SEC, averaging 14.6 yards a return with a long touchdown against Louisiana-Lafayette.
WR Henry Ruggs
The now-Las Vegas Raiders speedster had a real feast or famine freshman season at Alabama in 2017.
Ruggs didn’t catch many passes in his first season, but when he did, they usually went for touchdowns. On the season, Ruggs averaged 19.0 yards per reception (5th best in the SEC) and accounted for 12 receptions — 6 going for touchdowns.
OG Evan Neal
Alabama’s current mammoth left tackle actually started his career as a massive, mauling left guard.
Neal, a 5-star recruit from IMG Academy, toyed with a couple different spots on the OL to open the 2019 season, but the 6-7, 365-pound lineman settled in at left guard, starting 13 games.
Neal helped open holes for an offense that finished No. 2 nationally in scoring (47.2 points per game), and he didn’t allow a single sack in 392 pass-blocking snaps, per PFF.