In Jaylen Waddle's Injury, Alabama—and College Football—Loses Its Most Explosive Player

The Tide have other offensive stars, but as they chase a national title, there's no replacing a player like Waddle.
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Good injury luck is a big factor in every football season, and Alabama has gotten none of it the last two.

Last year, the Crimson Tide lost linebacker Dylan Moses before the season and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa during it, with the latter injury contributing directly to an Iron Bowl loss that ended any hope of reaching the College Football Playoff. This year, the injured party is receiver Jaylen Waddle—merely the most explosive player in the college game.

Waddle broke his right ankle being tackled while returning the opening kickoff of Alabama’s 48–17 rout of Tennessee Saturday. You knew the injury was bad right away, when Waddle was taken to the locker room without putting any weight on his leg. Later in the half, he was loaded on an ambulance and left the stadium. Before the second half kickoff, CBS reported that coach Nick Saban said Waddle is done for the year.

He will, almost assuredly, be done for his Alabama career as well. The junior from Houston is a first-round NFL draft talent.

Saban said Waddle will fly home separately from the team with doctors, who will evaluate him and expedite his treatment, which likely will begin with surgery.

"It’s really a sad time for me for Jaylen Waddle and for his family," Saban said. "The guy’s a great player, a great teammate, an exciting player to watch. I hate that people in college football can’t see him play more. We’re going to coach the players we have and do the best we can to try to get better."

Waddle came into Saturday’s action ranked fourth in the nation in receiving yards per game at 139.3. His 22.28 yards per catch led the nation for all receivers with 20 or more receptions. Blinding speed helped him make a catch of at least 45 yards in every game this season, including touchdowns of 90 and 87 yards.

On a team full of offensive stars, Waddle was the brightest—and was perhaps the top Heisman Trophy candidate among non-quarterbacks. This is a big loss for Alabama, and all college football fans who enjoy explosive athletic talent.

But if there is one position where the Tide can absorb an injury, it is receiver. Alabama has become Wide Receiver University in the last decade, churning them out one after another. From Julio Jones to Amari Cooper to Calvin Ridley to Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs, the talent at that position has been ridiculous over the last decade.

Despite Waddle’s brilliance, he was not Alabama’s team leader in receptions. That was DeVonta Smith, with 38. And there is sophomore John Metchie, who has become a playmaker this season after seeing few snaps last year. Metchie came into the game against Tennessee with 14 catches for 348 yards and three touchdowns, surpassing Waddle’s average reception yardage at 24.86. Afterward, the sophomore said, "We have a lot of weapons.... I think we all have faith and trust in the next man who has to step up."

Sophomore Slade Bolden, Waddle’s backup, stepped in and contributed immediately Saturday with six catches for 94 yards. There also are three more highly recruited wideouts in the freshman class, just waiting for their chance.

"We need some of our young guys," Saban said. "Not having a couple games outside the SEC where you can play those guys, we’ve got to play them.

So quarterback Mac Jones is not without talented options on the outside, to say nothing of running back Najee Harris and tight end Miller Forristall. Especially given the rest of the schedule after Saturday’s steamrolling of the Volunteers. The remainder: Mississippi State, LSU, Kentucky, Auburn and Arkansas—all of which entered play Saturday with at least two losses.

But Alabama isn’t seeking to merely win the SEC. It’s chasing a national title. And if we are seeing one evolving pattern in college football the last couple of years, it is the necessity of a high-powered passing game to win those. Losing your best wide receiver doesn’t help.

Clemson in 2018 had Trevor Lawrence throwing to Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. LSU last year had Joe Burrow throwing to JaMarr Chase, Justin Jefferson and Terrace Marshall.

With Waddle out, Ohio State might have a better receiving tandem in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson (with multiple young studs on deck). Clemson could get a huge boost in the passing game if Ross—declared out for the season during the summer due to spinal surgery—continues an improbable comeback. (He practiced in full pads this week for the first time this season.) Although Alabama’s defense made strides in the second half against Georgia and Saturday against Tennessee, this isn’t likely to be a unit that shuts down those offenses.

In what is becoming a shootout sport, losing a weapon like Jaylen Waddle can spell the difference between winning a national title and just another outstanding Alabama season.