Jaylen Waddle eager to build on explosive freshman season

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Jaylen Waddle eager to build on explosive freshman season

CW / Hannah Saad

CW / Hannah Saad

CW / Hannah Saad

CW / Hannah Saad

James Ogletree, Sports Editor

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Jaylen Waddle lived up to the tremendous hype that began all the way back in the summer before his freshman year. Now, with most of Alabama’s record-setting offense returning, it’s fair to wonder what he can do for an encore.

Waddle had a consistent role in the offense all last year, as he caught three passes for 66 yards in the season opener against Louisville while only playing 22 snaps. His yardage and reception total may fall short of previous superstar freshmen Calvin Ridley, Amari Cooper and Julio Jones, but he found the end zone at a higher clip than Ridley and Jones and had the second-highest yards per reception average (18.8) of any receiver under Saban with at least 20 catches.

“He’s a very dynamic player,” offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. “He’s the type of guy that if he gets the ball in space, he can score a touchdown at almost any moment. I think he’s a young man who works extremely hard, he has a high football IQ, he loves the game of football, he works at it, he wants to be as good as he can be, which are obviously all great qualities to have. He’s definitely a dynamic player who we have to continue to try to find ways to get the ball in his hands.”

The sophomore frustrates defensive backs whether he’s running past them off the line of scrimmage or making them miss in the open field.

“He’s hard to cover,” senior defensive back Shyheim Carter said. “He gives everybody a hard time to cover. He’s a great player overall. … His route running. He’s quick, so you’ve got to be on cue covering him. If he runs anything quick, your reaction has to be just as quick as his.”

Former wide receivers coach Josh Gattis, now the offensive coordinator at Michigan, had similar praise for Waddle last postseason, highlighting his energy and coachability.

Waddle could be an above-average receiver on athleticism alone,

Waddle said on Thursday that new receivers coach Holmon Wiggins shares Gattis’ emphasis on the finer details of playing the position.

He’s definitely big on detail and the little things. He really wants you to do the little things right,” Waddle said. “He’s real big on ball security, making sure that — he always says the ball is the most important thing in the program. So, he’s real, real big on ball security.”

Junior receiver Henry Ruggs III said during the spring that Wiggins began his tenure at Alabama by focusing on building relationships within the receiver room. Multiple receivers have mentioned their off-the-field contests, whether in the 40-yard dash or video games like Fortnite, Madden or 2K.

When asked what he’s the best at, Waddle thought for a moment, conceding defeat in the 40-yard dash to Ruggs – for now – and admitting he’s not much of a gamer. He settled on shooting a basketball, which coincidentally is also what he was doing when Ruggs first saw his prodigious athleticism.

For as much time as the quartet of Waddle, Ruggs, DeVonta Smith and Jerry Jeudy spend together off the field, they could see more time together on the field too.

Sarkisian and head coach Nick Saban have both implied that the team could use more four-receiver sets this year, due to the talented receiving corps and the team’s lack of tight end depth. Put another way, Waddle could simply be too good to keep on the sideline.

Waddle, who plays almost exclusively from the slot, also said Thursday that he would be open to playing more outside but will continue to make plays wherever coaches line him up.

“I hope so, I hope so,” Waddle said when asked about playing outside this year. “But in the game plan, I can do whatever.”