Notebook: Jaylen Waddle headlines special day for Alabama's special teams
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Nick Saban tried to provide a warning. When asked about facing Texas A&M’s reigning Ray Guy winner, Braden Mann, this week, the Alabama head coach reminded reporters that the strong-legged punter could create opportunities for an equally-talented returner in Jaylen Waddle.
Texas A&M should have listened.
The Aggies didn’t shy away from punting to Waddle, who came into the game leading the SEC averaging 17.38 yards per punt. That turned out to be a mistake as the dynamic sophomore receiver gained 128 yards on his four returns, including a long of 43 yards.
“Now these guys have a great punter, and everybody asked me about a great punter and my comment was ‘A great punter is good for us because we’ll get some return balls,’ And we got some.” Saban reiterated after the game “So, he kicked it far, and we returned it far. So, that’s the way it goes.”
While Waddle didn’t find the end zone on any of his returns, each one set up a touchdown drive for the Crimson Tide. The sophomore’s first return went for 15 yards and gave Alabama the ball at its own 43-yard line. His next return went for 43 yards, setting the Crimson Tide up at the Texas A&M 19-yard line. Then came a 28-yard return to the Alabama 45-yard line followed by a 42-yard return to the Texas A&M 33.
“I’d say those guys on our special teams, they’re the ones who kind of mediate the shift of the game,” said quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. “They’re the guys that — if we have a good return then the morale of the guys they kind of bring the guys with them.”
Waddle wasn’t the only player who shined on special teams. Fellow receiver Henry Ruggs III had four kick returns for 131 yards, while cornerback Trevon Diggs had a 28-yard kick return. Linebacker Ale Kaho had a blocked punt which receiver Tyrell Shavers scooped up at the Texas A&M 2-yard line before taking it into the end zone.
“I think special teams was huge in this game,” Saban said. “We had over 300 yards in returns. And the way I do the math on that, whether you score touchdowns or not, every 100 yards you have in field position is worth six points. So that was huge in terms of field position. It was huge in our ability to turn the field around and probably score points.”
Saban explains DeVonta Smith’s ejection
Shortly after the score got out of hand, so did a few tempers. During Alabama’s final drive of the game, receiver DeVonta Smith was ejected for taking a swing at a Texas A&M player.
The incident started when Texas A&M safety Leon O’Neal threw Smith to the ground and threw a punch of his own before the Alabama receiver retaliated. Both players were penalized resulting in an offsetting penalty, but only Smith was sent to the locker room early.
“Basically, he got hit — punched and he retaliated,” Saban said. “We’ll have to wait for the conference office to see what his status is. It was offsetting fouls. Obviously their player shouldn’t have punched him but (Smith) should have had the discipline not to hit him back because that’s a foul. We would have got a 15-yard penalty and that would have basically ended the game.”
The SEC will review the incident next week before doling out discipline. The severity of the pending punishment will determine Smith’s status for next week’s game against Tennessee.
Alabama hosts the Volunteers next Saturday at 8 p.m. CT inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Alabama leaves the Lone Star State injury free
One of the biggest positives from Saturday’s game came as Alabama escaped the contest without any major injuries.
Waddle appeared to hurt his arm and left to the locker room before the half. However he was able return to start of the second half. Tight end Miller Forristall limped off the field but also returned to the game.
Kicker Will Reichard did not play for a second straight game after injuring his hip against Southern Miss on Sept. 21. Center Chris Owens also missed the game while dealing with a knee injury.
“We don’t really have anybody significantly injured,” Saban said. “Will Reichard will still be day-to-day as we go through and see how he feels next week, and Chris Owens should be able to start practicing a little bit more. But we’ll just have to see how those guys go right now.”
Landon Dickerson started in place of Owens at center while Deonte Brown made his first start of the season at right guard. Those two helped Alabama gain 448 yards of total offense. That included 155 yards on the ground as running back Najee Harris gained 114 yards on 20 carries becoming the first player this season to gain 100 or more yards on the ground against the Aggies.
“I think Landon did a great job,” Tagovailoa said. “With communicating up front with the guys, giving Mike points, sliding to protect me. I think Deonte Brown did a great job as well. We had some miscommunication errors up front, but I think the second half we came out better. We cleaned everything up.”
Tua Tagovailoa has another record day
After passing for four touchdowns Saturday, Tagovailoa has 81 on his career, giving him sole possession of Alabama’s all-time passing touchdown record. The junior entered the day tied with AJ McCarron, who threw 77 touchdowns from 2010-13.
Tagovailoa’s 293 yards through the air against Texas A&M give him 6,613 passing yards on his career. That moves him into third place on Alabama’s all-time list, passing Brodie Croyle, who passed for 6,382 yards from 2002-05. Tagovailoa is now 1,311 yards shy of passing John Parker Wilson (2005-08) who is second on the list with 7,924 yards. AJ McCarron (2010-13), the program’s all-time leader, finished with 9,019 yards across his four seasons at Alabama.