TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — You almost have to wonder if the Alabama wide receivers get together before each series and say, “See you in the end zone.”
More often than not, they’d be right, at least when the entire first-team offense is on the field. During the Crimson Tide’s first nine games of the 2018 regular season, Alabama’s players caught 33 touchdown passes, 25 of which were by the wide receivers.
That’s an average of almost four per game, and nearly three by the receiving corps. Its already topped the Alabama single-season record of 32 receiving touchdowns set in 2014.
Yeah, that’s how good the Crimson Tide’s passing game has been.
“We have phenomenal wide receivers,” senior tight end Hale Hentges said.
He’s obviously not the only one who feels that way.
“They’re really good,” junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said. “They’re the ones who make me look good. I mean I could throw a 2-yard slant, and they’ll turn that 2-yard slant into like a 20-yard game. It’s their run after catch that surprises me. As kind of small as they are, they’re fighters – all three of them.”
Actually, there’s now four with true freshman Jaylen Waddle having earned a spot the mix. Heading into November he had joined sophomores Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith has having already topped 400 receiving yards, and all had scored a touchdown from the other side of the 50-yard line.
Coming into the season Jeudy was thought to be sort of a Calvin Ridley clone, Smith had already made history by catching the winning touchdown in the National Championship Game and Ruggs was considered the fastest player on the team.
Waddle might give him a good race, but Jeudy gives Ruggs the benefit of doubt because Alabama’s Catapult GPS system that players wear during practices once measured him as going 24 mph.
“I haven’t clocked 24 yet,” Jeudy said.
“When I get a ball, I actually feel slow.”
He obviously doesn’t look it. If anything Jeudy appears to get faster as he makes the catch and then pulls away from defenders.
“Just more want-to,” was his explanation. “I just want to get there faster than my opponent I guess.”
A perfect example of what Tagovailoa was talking about occurred on Alabama’s second offensive play against Missouri, when Jeudy lined up in his usual spot in the slot and only had to look up and know that the Crimson Tide was about to score. With Smith running an inside route and leaving a safety to try one-on-one coverage, he was thinking touchdown all the way.
Eighty-one yards later, Alabama led 7-0.
“I knew once Smitty made a cross that the safety would come down and he’d take Smitty and I’d be open over the top against the post,” said Jeudy, who was hit in stride by the pass from Tagovailoa.
It was the third time in four games that Alabama scored on one of its first two snaps, with the wide receiver notching his ninth touchdown of the season. He notched No. 10 a week later at Tennessee.
To help put that into perspective, the Crimson Tide single-season record for receiving touchdowns 16 by Amari Copper, also during that 2014 season.
Alabama might have a chance to have two players top that as Ruggs has eight with potentially six games to go.
"I think that all of those guys were really good players a year ago," Nick Saban said about the sophomores. "They didn't have as many opportunities a year ago. But they've certainly grown and developed, I think, in their knowledge and experience of the position. Their confidence. They're all very talented guys.
"I think they've been really, really productive and everybody's had a really good year. They also have great competitive character. They work hard every day. They've shown toughness throughout the course of the year. Hard to complain about much about what those guys have been able to do this year and the way they've done it."
Thus, the conundrum for defenders. With Alabama having a punishing backfield that looks better each week, a line that could potentially take over a game, numerous receiving options including a dynamic tight end and it’s almost pick your poison.
They keep the safeties back and Alabama pounds the ball and swings the ball wide for short gains that can turn into big ones, especially with the receivers taking pride in throwing effective blocks downfield.
The defensive backs move up and Tagovailoa can hit anyone behind them.
So the last thing defenses want to do is leave a defensive back without any help against any of the receivers, but they often don’t have a choice.
Consequently, there are times that Alabama doesn’t even have to really disguise anything. For example, if Tagovailoa sees a defender playing off Jeudy in the slot all he has to do is get him the ball on a slant pass and he’s gone.
But then Alabama might move junior tight end Irv Smith Jr. wide, or bring in Waddle for an all-speed formation …
“We feel like we can score on any play,” the junior tight end said.
Quick-strike touchdowns have been one of the results. Heading into the November stretch run, 33 of the Crimson Tide’s 61 offensive touchdowns had lasted five plays or less. Twenty had lasted less than a minute with 11 scored in under 30 seconds.
It’s the time needed for someone to run into the end zone after making a catch in stride like Waddle did for a jaw-dropping 77-yard touchdown at Tennessee. He’s also returning punts and had a 94-yard touchdown reception against Louisiana, the second-longest in Crimson Tide history (AJ McCarron to Cooper at Auburn in 2013).
“He's amazing,” Alabama cornerback Trevon Diggs said before suffering a season-ending knee injury. “He's a really great talent. I've never seen anything like it honestly.”
Alabama had also scored on its opening possession of every game. LSU was able to break that streak at Tiger Stadium, but the Crimson Tide still passes for 295 yard. It also attempted just one pass in the fourth quarter, had Ruggs leave the game with a foot/ankle issue, and Smith was limited coming off a hamstring injury.
LSU was also the best secondary Alabama will see this year. Saturday's opponent, No. 16 Mississippi State, statistically leads the league in passing defense, but the Bulldogs are led by defensive linemen Montez Sweat and Jeffrey Simmons. The back end is good, but not Grant Delpit- and Greedy Williams-good.
It may not be traditional Crimson Tide football — it leads the nation in scoring offense (51.3 points), total offense (565.6 yards) and passing efficiency (210.28 rating), but is 25th in rushing offense (224.0 yards) — but No. 1 Alabama isn’t going to make any excuses.
“It’s fun,” Smith said of the dynamic. “When someone makes a play, we’ll all be happy. We’ll laugh at the things that be on film when good things happen. It’s just a fun group to be around.”