TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — There was a sort of a debate during the 2018 football season, albeit a friendly one, about which University of Alabama playmaker had the best juke moves.
Jerry Jeudy thought it was either Josh Jacobs or Jaylen Waddle. Jacobs didn’t want to say himself, opting for Waddle or Najee Harris.
Regardless, the answers were especially telling because the player mentioned by both was only a true freshman.
A lot of people in college football were shaking their heads about that, especially since the Crimson Tide already had a strong group of wide receivers before Waddle arrived on campus. Once he did though, it didn’t long for his new teammates to rave about the new addition.
“He’s ready, he’s fast,” said wide receiver DeVonta Smith, who was especially impressed with Waddle’s high energy level. “He’s ready for it.”
“He’s been really fun to watch,” linebacker Christian Miller said at the time.
Waddle’s first season with the Crimson Tide stood out to the point that any conversation about which first-year players the coaching staff can build around has to start with the one named the SEC Freshman of the Year.
While Waddle wasn’t considered a starter, as sophomores Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and Smith had already stepped into those roles, he still finished with 45 catches for 848 yards and seven receiving touchdowns.
He also averaged 14.6 yards per punt return, which would have ranked fifth if he had enough attempts to qualify for the national leaders, with one touchdown.
Another was called back due to a penalty during the opener against Louisville in Orlando, but it still made a first impression that was jaw-dropping. So was the lasting image he left everyone with in the SEC Championship Game, where Waddle turned a short pass over the middle by Tua Tagovailoa into a blazing 51-yard touchdown.
The only things missing were the “beep, beep” and the cartoon cloud of smoke.
“He's amazing,” cornerback Trevon Diggs said before suffering his season-ending foot injury at Arkansas. “He's a really great talent. I've never seen anything like it honestly. He reminds me of a kind of Tavon Austin punt returner/receiver.”
Even though Jeudy ended up being a consensus All-American and won the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the best receiver in college football, Waddle had the third most receiving yards by a freshman in the nation. He trailed only Purdue’s Rondale Moore (114-1,258), and the rookie who put on a show during in the National Championship Game, Clemson’s Justyn Ross (46-1,000).
Consequently, he was named a Freshman All-American by both the Football Writers Association of America and the Associated Press, along with teammate Patrick Surtain II at cornerback.
Waddle also had the fourth-most receiving yards by a freshman in Alabama history.
Most receiving yards by an Alabama freshman
Name, Year, Freshman Rec-Yards, TDs
Calvin Ridley, 2015, 89-1,045, 7
Amari Cooper, 2012, 59-1,000, 11
Julio Jones, 2008, 58-924, 4
Jaylen Waddle, 2018, 45, 848, 7
The three names ahead of him are all familiar as each played during the Nick Saban era, but doesn’t include Jeudy.
As a freshman in 2017, when Calvin Ridley was he primary target for Jalen Hurts, Jeudy made just 14 receptions for 264 yards, with two touchdowns. Yet his 18.9 average per catch was indicative of what was to follow.
This past season he made 68 receptions for 1,315 yards, averaging 19.3 per catch, and scored 14 touchdowns. It was just the eighth time Alabama had a player top 1,000 receiving yards in a single season.
So it’s one thing for Waddle to post the kind of numbers he did, but quite another to do it when Alabama had so many other options in the passing game.
“It's been tough for people to defend all those guys,” 2018 offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said before heading to his new job as Maryland head coach. “It’s a tough matchup.”
Being the fourth receiver worked to Waddle’s advantage because defenses often had to try and either put a linebacker or one of its least effective defensive backs on him in coverage. Neither was desirable, especially considering Waddle’s speed, but they had little choice.
While Alabama’s 2019 opponents will be searching for better options, if any can be found, Waddle will have the advantage of a full offseason in Scott Cochran’s weight room plus spring practices.
Speed got him on the field in 2018, and it was effort that made him so effective as a developing major threat.
“The grind of practice was still an adjustment for me,” he said. “I knew if I worked hard I’d have a chance to play.”
Now he gets to add experience in the mix, and there’s an old theory in college football that the most improvement a player makes is after his first season.
Plus Alabama will return nearly everyone in the passing game not named Irv Smith Jr., the tight end who left a year early after making 44 catches for 710 yards and seven touchdowns.
With Tagovailoa, Jeudy, Ruggs and DeVonta Smith all still in the mix even the juke moves could potentially get better, although that’s hard to imagine right now.
“There’s definitely a competition,” Waddle said with smile.
This is the second story in the "Next up" series: