Next man up: Sleep on Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle at your own peril
It is easy to see why the electric junior trio of Alabama wide receivers gets all kinds of praise.
Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III are bona fide stars and future 1st-round NFL Draft picks. And if DeVonta Smith was the bass player to Jeudy’s lead singer and Ruggs’ lead guitarist before the Ole Miss game, his 11-catch, 274-yard, 5-touchdown performance gave him a spotlight all to himself. (Not to mention a couple of school records.)
Any college football program would consider itself blessed to have Jeudy, Ruggs or Smith on their roster. The combination has made Tua Tagovailoa a Heisman Trophy contender for 2 consecutive seasons.
But there is a 4th Tide receiver who might be just as talented as the Super 3. His name is Jaylen Waddle. Ignore him at your own risk.
Waddle is just a sophomore, which is perhaps the only reason he doesn’t get the same love that his junior teammates get. The Houston native possesses the same game-breaking talent and is more or less just biding his time for the right opportunity to show it.
Currently 4th on the Tide roster with 12 receptions (5 behind No. 3 Ruggs) and 4th in receiving yards with 197 (164 behind No. 3 Ruggs), Waddle has seen his fair share of targets this season. He caught 5 passes for 90 yards against Duke for his best performance, but has at least 1 reception in each of Alabama’s 5 games.
That doesn’t even include is impact on special teams, where he leads the SEC with a 17.38 yards-per-return on punts.
Is Waddle, who has yet to taste the end zone this season despite Alabama’s 24 passing TDs, frustrated by his current station in the Tide WR rotation?
“No sir,” Waddle said Monday. “It’s just how the offense flows and how the offense goes.”
Waddle’s sophomore stats almost perfectly mirror his freshman output through 5 games — as he had 1 more reception, 67 more yards and 2 TDs through the same point in 2018.
Much of that, though, can be chalked up to the ridiculously effective game Smith had against Ole Miss — a game that saw Tagovailoa recognize the hot hand early and feed Smith as often as possible en route to a record-smashing performance.
But make no mistake, Waddle’s blazing speed and ability to make DBs miss in the open field is a valuable asset to Tagovailoa and the Crimson Tide. After all, one could argue that Waddle is the best Tide target behind Jeudy — as Waddle’s 45-catch, 848-yard freshman season trailed only the Biletnikoff Award winner last season.
“Oh yeah, it definitely opens things up. When you have 4 fast guys out there — when you have Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith — I mean these guys (on defense) aren’t going to play man (coverage), they are going to play zone,” Tagovailoa said before the 2019 season began. “If they play man against these guys, we gotta go out and torch the defense, and if they are going to play zone, it opens up a lot of the run game. Then, when they end up stepping into the box, then that’s time for RPOs (run-pass options), play-actions. It just opens up everything.”
Tide coach Nick Saban is also a fan of Waddle’s remarkable skill set.
“I certainly think that Jaylen has a lot of ability,” Saban said last week. “We want him to be a very positive contributor. We want him to play with great consistency in performance and we’re going to continue to work with him so that maybe he can do that a little better. But we have a lot of confidence in him in a lot of ways to do a lot of good things for us.”
Still, one wouldn’t blame Waddle for feeling a tad left out of all the fun Jeudy, Ruggs and Smith have had this season.
“It’s been great, honestly,” Waddle said Monday. “I love to watch them because I see how hard they work. … I love to watch them go out and play to the best of their ability.”
This week’s tussle with No. 24 Texas A&M is the next chance for Waddle to admire his teammates’ ability and redefine his own brand on the national stage. And it is an opponent that Waddle knows all too well.
Before signing with Alabama, the Aggies were locked in a battle to sign Waddle — a 4-star prospect ranked among the 5 best receivers in the nation by the 247Sports composite. Because Tom Herman was still relatively new at Texas and Jimbo Fisher was taking over at Texas A&M as Waddle was a senior at Episcopal High School, Waddle ended up as the only top 15 recruit in the state who didn’t sign with either Texas or Texas A&M that recruiting cycle.
So unlike almost all the players on the Tide roster, Waddle has been to Kyle Field many times as recruit.
“It can get pretty loud,” he said. “12th Man is real.”
So, too, is Waddle. Sleep on him and his talent at your own peril.