TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama quarterback Jake Coker is a fifth-year senior playing on his second college team, so he has thrown to many different receivers over the course of his career. But something stood out to him when Crimson Tide freshman Calvin Ridley first stepped on campus last summer. Ridley, a 6' 1", 188-pound five-star signee from Coconut Creek, Fla., didn't turn heads with his dynamic skill set alone. Instead, he made his mark with a willingness to learn, an uncommon attribute among highly touted freshmen.
During player-run 7-on-7 drills, Coker would occasionally pull Ridley aside to offer advice, a few small tidbits from an upperclassman. Some blue-chip recruits might have chafed at these interactions, but Coker noticed Ridley would perk up. "It was just, 'All right, I got you.' " Coker said on Wednesday. "Then he'd do it right the next time. Every great player I've been around has been that way. So I knew he was going to be special."
That formula has paid dividends for Ridley, whose freshman season is on the verge of going down as one of the greatest in program history entering Monday's national championship game against Clemson. Ridley's 1,031 receiving yards through 14 games is a Crimson Tide freshman record, breaking a mark set by Amari Cooper (1,000), a Heisman Trophy finalist and Biletnikoff Award winner in 2014. Ridley made eight catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 31, including a 50-yard scoring bomb from Coker in the third quarter. His seven receiving touchdowns lead all Bama players.
But Ridley's impact goes beyond mere numbers. The freshman has single-handedly altered the outcome of several games this season, stepping up with timely catches on pivotal drives. In many ways, Ridley has blossomed into a silent assassin for the Crimson Tide offense, a player who can turn a game with one devastating catch. "He sort of gets it," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "He knows what it takes."
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Ridley began his freshman campaign rotating on the edge with fellow wideouts Robert Foster, Richard Mullaney and ArDarius Stewart, and averaged a little more than 31 receiving yards through his first four games. But Foster suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in a 43–37 loss to Ole Miss on Sept. 19, completely shifting the make-up of Alabama's receiving corps. Ridley earned a start in a 34–0 win over Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 26, reeling in his first career touchdown pass to go with his 38 receiving yards.
But Ridley truly came alive against then No. 8 Georgia on Oct. 3. The freshman's tremendous outing (five catches for 120 yards and a touchdown) included a 45-yard scoring reception on a pass from Coker just before the half, when the Crimson Tide held a 17–3 lead. The touchdown put the game out of reach, and Alabama rolled 38–10.
Pick a game on the Tide's schedule, and Ridley likely found a way to alter its path. In a 27–14 victory over Arkansas on Oct. 10, Ridley broke free for an 81-yard score late in the third quarter that gave Bama a 10–7 lead that it wouldn't relinquish. It was the second-longest touchdown catch by a freshman in school history.
Ridley's 15-yard jumping catch on a crucial third-and-six with a little more than three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter against Tennessee on Oct. 24 kept Alabama's go-ahead drive alive in what became a narrow 19–14 win. And he sprung free for a 60-yard scoring grab in the second quarter of the Crimson Tide's victory over Mississippi State on Nov. 14, helping turn a tight 7–0 affair into a 31–6 rout.
In the SEC title game on Dec. 5, Alabama trailed Florida 7–5 late in the first half before Ridley hauled in a 55-yard catch in double coverage just inside the five-yard line. That set up junior tailback Derrick Henry's two-yard scoring run. The Tide would go on to win 29–15.
Ridley didn't win a Heisman like Henry, and he didn't star in a pass-happy offense like Baylor's Corey Coleman, TCU's Josh Doctson or some of the other more prolific receivers in college football. But each time Alabama has found itself in a jam, Ridley has proven he can deliver. The freshman has now started 10 games this season, and with each week he has grown into a more dangerous threat. Of Ridley's seven touchdown catches, five have come on receptions of 30 yards or longer, including his 50-yard score against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. And that wasn't even his most impressive play in the 38–0 win: He made a leaping, third-quarter touchdown catch over Spartans junior cornerback Jermaine Edmondson—on a pass that was originally ruled incomplete—showcasing both his insane athleticism and his dazzling footwork. The score extended Alabama's lead to 17–0.
Coker hasn't played with many first-year players who make the kind of impact Ridley does. "It's pretty crazy for a true freshman to be able to do the things he's done," Coker said. However, Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin worked with freshmen All-America receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods during his stint as USC's head coach, and he sees similar game-breaking ability in Ridley. "We all saw the writing on the wall," Kiffin said on Wednesday. "Regardless of [Foster's] injury, Calvin was going to play a bunch. He just had to get used to playing. It was just going to be a matter of time."
Of course, Ridley is most often compared to former Alabama stars Julio Jones and Cooper, the latter of whom also hails from the Miami area. (Ridley's alma mater, Monarch High, is just 35 miles from Cooper's alma mater, Northwestern High.) Now that Ridley has shattered Cooper's Bama freshman receiving record, he hears his predecessor's name more often than he would prefer. "I try not to let that affect me," Ridley said. "It's great to be compared to that dude, he's a great receiver. But I've tried to stay humble."
On Monday, Ridley will play on the biggest stage of his young career against a Clemson secondary that features two All-ACC selections in redshirt sophomore cornerback Mackensie Alexander and junior safety Jayron Kearse. Against Michigan State Kiffin engineered a game plan that put the ball in Ridley's hands often as the Spartans sold out to stop the run; that strategy could come into play in the national title game, too, as the Tigers' defense will likely devise an approach primarily focused on containing Henry.
Ridley has proven up to the challenge before, though, and many of his plays have kept Alabama's run to Glendale, Ariz., alive. If Ridley has established anything, it's this: The Crimson Tide's explosive freshman wideout won't just show up—he'll show up exactly when Alabama needs him the most.