Jaylen Waddle took your breath away so often the past three seasons at Alabama that he changed the way you watched him play. Whether he was returning kicks or catching passes, you were better off taking a big gulp of air when the ball was headed his direction and exhaling only after the whistle blew and you knew the play was over.
What he did between those two moments was almost always special.
Although Waddle isn’t particularly big — he checked in at a slight 5-foot-10, 180 pounds — his athleticism made him stand out in a way few others can. There wasn’t a 50-50 ball he couldn’t come down with. There wasn’t a defensive back he couldn’t outrun. Former Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley had a word for that: twitchy.
Jerry Jeudy was smooth. Henry Ruggs III was a burner. But Waddle was more explosive — more twitchy — than either of those star receivers.
“He’s fast sideways and forward and backward and in and out of breaks,” Locksley said. “He can get from zero to 60 pretty quickly.”
Back in Waddle’s hometown of Houston, they had another way of describing Waddle that was less technical and more sublime. They called him, simply, “Magic.” Why? Because, as Episcopal High coach Steve Leisz put it, “It was now you see him, now you don’t.”
About one out of every six passes Waddle caught at Alabama resulted in a touchdown. He averaged a first down (10.1 yards) running after the catch.
There’s another euphemism for that kind of playmaking ability: electric.
Which is why, when the lights when out on Waddle’s season Saturday against Tennessee, it was so hard to watch. Seeing him driven from Neyland Stadium by ambulance with a broken ankle was the first time in Waddle’s career that he made you want to look away.
Afterward, Alabama coach Nick Saban acknowledged the enormity of the loss. It was sad, he said, for Waddle and his family that surgery would cause him to miss the rest of the season.
It was sad, too, for the entire sport. Waddle is a potential first-round pick, and that might have been the last time we’ll see him in an Alabama uniform.
“I hate that people in college football can’t see him play more,” Saban said.
But because the world doesn’t stop spinning every time a star falls, Saban’s comments didn’t end there.
“We’re going to coach the players we have and do the best we can to try to get better,” he added.
It can seem cruel to move on so quickly, but it’s exactly what the sport demands. Alabama, undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the country, can’t slow its march to the College Football Playoff. Neither can its offense afford to slow down.
And the surprising thing is that it might not have to.
It’s true, of course, that there’s no replacing a player as gifted as Jaylen Waddle. You don’t lose an All-American talent (at two positions) and get better. Saban compared it to having someone like Hall of Fame point guard Allen Iverson taken away. “He’s that kind of impact player,” Saban said.
But Alabama has options to try to fill in the gaps. What Saban and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian have built should be enough to stay the course.
Remember, DeVonta Smith hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s racked up 556 yards and four touchdowns already this season. With five more trips to the end zone, he’ll pass Amari Cooper for the most career TD receptions in school history.
John Metchie III has a long, long, long way to go before he enters that conversation, but his emergence this season is a big reason for the confidence in the receiver corps moving forward. After playing sparingly as a freshman, the Ontario native has broken out to the tune of 21 catches for 499 yards and three touchdowns.
Saban said that Metchie is a powerful receiver with good quickness and “really strong hands.” What’s more, Saban said he’s smart, pays attention to detail and runs good routes, getting in and out of his breaks with speed.
“I think it’s kind of been coming to fruition this year that he’s been making a lot of plays,” Alabama quarterback Mac Jones said. “He’s getting a chance. He’s always been a great route runner, a great player and a great person. It shows up on the field on Saturdays, and his role will even increase more now that Waddle is down. But like I said, all of our guys have to be ready to make plays, and all of our guys are doing a great job.”
And who might those guys be?
Look no further than Waddle’s replacement against Tennessee, Slade Bolden, who entered Saturday with zero catches and left with six receptions for 94 yards. Saban said he thought Bolden played well, save for a dropped would-be touchdown.
A nimble and tough 5-foot-11, Bolden has all the appearances of a prototypical slot receiver. But the former high school quarterback is multitalented, which is why Sarkisian went out of his way to get him on the field as a freshman last season, whether it was as a receiver or a Wildcat quarterback. Tennessee was prepared for the latter on Saturday: Bolden threw a touchdown against the Vols last year.
What’s more, he’s an option to fill Waddle’s shoes in the return game.
“He’s played a lot of different positions,” Jones said of Bolden. “Shoot, he’s even played defense before in the spring practices before. The guy knows a lot about football. If you go and watch his high school highlights, I always like watching his highlights because it gets me pretty fired up. He’s making plays. So when you have somebody that can make plays like that and put him wherever you want on the field, he’s super versatile. … He’s just getting started.”
Don’t sleep on Xavier Williams, the former No. 2-ranked receiver in the 2018 Class. And don’t discount how Sarkisian might utilize running backs Najee Harris, Brian Robinson and Trey Sanders in the passing game.
Tight ends Miller Forristall and Major Tennison could see their workload increased, as well as Carl Tucker, who caught four touchdowns on 36 receptions at North Carolina before arriving at Alabama as a grad transfer.
Long story short: Jones won’t be lacking for targets.
The redshirt junior quarterback is already putting up Heisman Trophy numbers with 1,905 yards and 12 touchdowns passing. He added a rushing touchdown on Saturday.
Not that Tennessee is the end-all, be-all, but Waddle went out on the very first play of the game and Alabama still managed to tally 587 yards of offense and 48 points. That should tell you something.
A year ago, we referred to the quartet of Jeudy, Ruggs, Smith and Waddle by their nickname, “the Ryde Outs.” But as Metchie said earlier this month, that was more a mantra than a moniker.
“It’s all about playing to our standard at the end of the day, and that’s what Ryde Out is — it’s playing to the standard that the guys who have come before have set,” he said.
So, yes, Jeudy and Ruggs and now Waddle are all out of the picture. But, as Metchie said after beating Tennessee, “The offense is the offense.” It doesn’t change.
With everyone caught up on losing Waddle — and rightfully so after his marvelous career to date — Metchie was looking forward, saying that “everybody is able to kind of eat at different moments.”
Magic may be gone, but Alabama still has a few tricks up its sleeve.