Jaylen Waddle Injury not just a Blow for Alabama, But All of College Football

Even though Alabama crushed rival Tennessee, again, the Crimson Tide took a big emotional blow with the loss of Jaylen Waddle
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Longtime Alabama fans have felt this way before. 

Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa at Mississippi State comes to mind. All the linebackers who left games and didn't return over the past few years as well. With wide receivers, there's Tyrone Prothro against Florida. 

Thankfully, Jaylen Waddle's ankle injury doesn't appear to be as extreme as the former or the latter, but it's obviously bad enough. 

When former running back Kenyan Drake suffered a similar injury at Ole Miss in 2014, which teammates initially described as "scary," Alabama didn't hesitate to air lift him straight to doctors in Birmingham. It was the same with Waddle. 

Being helped off the field after the opening kickoff at Tennessee was one thing, but when he started slamming his hand down on the cart one pretty much knew what the outcome would be. Consequently, that awful, sickening feeling returned once again. 

"The guy's a great player, a great teammate," a subdued  Nick Saban said. He's an exciting player to watch. I hate it that people in college football can't see a great player the rest of this season.

Saban was correct, it wasn't just a loss for Alabama, but all of college football. 

Waddle was probably the game's most exciting player this season, although it's difficult to assess given those who opted out and some leagues have yet to start play. In addition to being such a dynamic receiver, teams were doing everything they could not to kick or punt to him.  

Opponents were pure-out afraid of him, a quality that you just don't see very often at this level. 

Now, just like so many of us said how fun it was to watch Prothro years ago, the same holds true for Waddle. Assuming that surgery goes well and  he's able to recover, he's almost certainly played his last down for the Crimson Tide. 

Waddle's simply too good, too dynamic, and too dangerous not to be a high draft pick. 

So even though Alabama crushed Tennessee, 48-17, and Crimson Tide fans were able to light cigars for the 14th straight year, Saturday had a very somber feel to it.

"Really a sad time for me, for Jaylen Waddle and his family," Saban said. 

That Alabama's offense didn't seem to blink with Waddle out, plus guard Deonte Brown sidelined (shoulder) and tight end Miller Forristall banged up, was a credit to the Crimson Tide. 

Alabama still had 587 yards of total offense, with Mac Jones throwing for 387, Najee Harris running for 96 and three touchdowns, and John Metchie III picking up the slack with seven catches for 151 yards. 

When a lot of teams would have been numb about losing a player of Waddle's caliber Jones didn't have an incompletion through the first quarter as the Crimson Tide jumped out to a 14-0 lead. At that point, Alabama was ahead in total yards 181-21 and already coasting.

This team will need to rely on players like them and DeVonta Smith moving forward as the full impact of Waddle's loss becomes more evident. 

Granted, Waddle was due to make only his fifth career start against the Volunteers, but he's the kind of player who created a buzz even before his first game in 2018

“Every time he touches the ball I hold my breath because he’s just an explosive receiver, explosive punt returner,” Jerry Jeudy, the 2018 winner of the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the best receiver in college football, once said about Waddle. “No matter what he’s going to always make plays, find a way to make plays, because that’s the kind of player he is.”

Waddle’s debut with Alabama, against Louisville in Orlando, resulted in three receptions for 66 yards, including a 49-yard play that set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Harris. He also had four punt returns for 80 yards with a long of 31.

However, the play that really made people’s jaws drop that night was one that didn’t count. Waddle had a punt return for a touchdown nullified by a penalty.

“The dude is explosive. He really might be the fastest dude on the team. He has legit speed,” running back Josh Jacobs said. “He’s going to make a lot of big plays.”

Waddle was such an immediate force that he earned regular playing time even though Alabama already had Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, who were top-15 selections in the 2020 NFL Draft, and Smith, who caught the game-winning touchdown in overtime of the 2017 national title game.

And Waddle only got better.

Last season as a sophomore, he was a consensus second-team All-American, but landed first-team honors by the Football Writers Association of America after leading the nation by a wide margin in punt return average (24.4 yards).

He also crushed the Alabama record in the process and was named the SEC Special Teams Player of the Year.

When coaches put him deep on kickoffs against Auburn, he returned one 98 yards for a touchdown. It was just one of four times he reached the end zone that Saturday, the other three all coming on receptions of 58, 12 and 28 yards as he tallied four catches for 98 yards.

He averaged 20.0 yards per punt return. To put into perspective, Javier Arenas, who is on the Alabama staff and has been helping Waddle, holds the Crimson Tide record at 14.1 yards.

The NCAA record (since 1976) is 17.9 by Dan Sheldon at Northern Illinois in 2001-04. However, the minimum to qualify is 50 career returns, and Waddle doesn't have enough. 

And now he's probably done, with it highly unlikely that Alabama's offense will be the same moving forward. 

But that doesn't mean it can't still be pretty good. 

"I don’t think everybody can be like Waddle and be extremely fast, which is super unfair," Metchie said earlier this week. "But I think I got something too."

Jaylen Waddle with Butch Jones in the background vs. Tennessee in 2018