'Smooth' Slade Bolden could be the latest facet to Alabama's potent offense
The play netted just two yards, but it might have opened up a can of worms for future defensive coordinators to worry about.
Alabama showed a new look on offense last week during its second drive of the third quarter as receiver Slade Bolden entered the game as a Wildcat quarterback on third-and-2 from the South Carolina 31-yard line. Working out of the shotgun with fellow receiver Jaylen Waddle beside him at running back, Bolden faked a handoff before darting up the middle.
At first, it looked as though the 5-foot-11, 191-pound redshirt freshman was going to be swallowed up quickly as three Gamecocks defenders swarmed in on him behind the line of scrimmage. However, Bolden wriggled away, ultimately diving for a first down to extend the drive.
“When they put it in, we were real excited for it,” receiver DeVonta Smith said of the play. “We were talking about Waddle thinking he’s a running back, so we were just excited to see what they were going to do and we were like, ‘I hope y’all just don’t mess this up.’”
They didn’t, bringing about another dangerous facet to Alabama’s already explosive offense.
Last week was the first time Alabama used the Wildcat package this season, but it likely won’t be the last. Last year, Alabama lined up Josh Jacobs as its Wildcat quarterback nine times, resulting in 35 yards and eight first downs.
Like Jacobs, Bolden served as a Wildcat quarterback in high school. During his senior year he was named the Gatorade Louisiana Football Player of the Year, passing for 1,622 yards and 20 touchdowns while rushing for 1,460 yards and 20 more scores.
“We just thought maybe there’s something that we could utilize him in in short yardage,” head coach Nick Saban said, “and he does a good job of that.”
According to Bolden’s high school coach Jerry Arledge, the Crimson Tide can expect much more from the elusive playmaker. Arledge’s first memory of Bolden came during a seven-on-seven game the summer before the athlete’s freshman year of high school.
“He was out there in the slot, and we flipped the ball out there to him,” Arledge recalled. “There were two or three guys, and he made them miss and then goes and scores. I said, ‘Who is that kid?’ I look and see he’s an incoming freshman. He didn’t stay with the freshman team very long.”
After featuring at wide receiver and running back during his freshman year, Bolden received his first opportunity behind center during the second game of his sophomore season as West Monroe (La.) High School’s starting quarterback suffered a broken ankle in the first quarter. Switching to quarterback at the half, Bolden recorded 212 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries to help his team to a 44-36 victory.
From there, Arledge did just about anything he could to get his playmaker the ball in space. By the end of his high school career Bolden had lined up at wide receiver, running back, quarterback, defensive back and also returned kicks.
“We’d love to have about four or five of him every year,” Arledge said. “Well actually, more like six or seven. We’d find a spot for all of them.”
Even as an underclassman, Bolden’s athleticism garnered attention from across the nation. One of Arledge’s favorite stories is of a Washington assistant who called him after watching the four-star recruit’s highlight reel.
“When he saw him on tape he said, ‘I found the next (Christian) McCaffrey,’” Arledge remembers. “He went back and told that to (Chris) Petersen.”
While Bolden lacks the elite speed of other members in Alabama’s vaunted receiving corps, he makes up for it with his elusiveness.
“He’s not the fastest, but Slade is precise with everything he’s doing and he’s got great hands,” Smith said. “Slade is just a smooth person, just goes out there and does all the right things. He’s going to run his route at the right depth and do it how he’s supposed to do it.”
Added fellow receiver Henry Ruggs III: “We call Slade Julian Edelman every day. The way he’s been practicing since the spring, he’s really been improving a lot and he’s been making a lot of plays.”
After appearing in just one game last year, Bolden has served primarily on special teams this season. Last week, he recorded a tackle to stop a fake punt in the second quarter.
His opportunities on offense have been a bit more limited. Listed as the backup to Jerry Jeudy and Jaylen Waddle at slot receiver, Bolden has been involved in just 24 offensive snaps through Alabama’s first three games, according to Pro Football Focus. However, those numbers could see a slight uptick if the Crimson Tide plans on using its new package more frequently in the future.
“I think you want to feature the players that you have so if you have players that are capable of doing something, we’ll ask him to do it, which Slade can in this case,” Saban said of using Bolden out of the Wildcat formation. “We usually decide how we want to do short-yardage from week to week, even though you have some specialty things that can create an advantage, then you obviously want to try to do that in game-planning.
“I do think that when you have diversity and players that can do multiple things, whether they’re playing offense, defense or special teams it always enhances your chances of scheming things that can help you be successful.”
Regardless of how many more times Alabama elects to use Bolden behind center, the redshirt freshman has already proven to be a capable playmaker with the ball in his hands. At the very least, that’s one more thing opposing defenses have to worry about moving forward.
“He’s strong, fast, elusive and he can make people miss,” Arledge said. “He’s one of those who can just change direction in a heartbeat. He believes in himself and his ability to make things happen.”