The future of Alabama's offense hails from a small town in Texas
The future of Alabama’s offense hails from a small North Texas town. The roughly 5,000-population city of Aledo sits 20 miles west of Fort Worth and is home to a football program that boasts similar success to the one found in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Aledo High School has won 10 state titles, including the past three at the Class 5A Division II level, and is currently riding a 97-game unbeaten streak in district play that dates back to 2007. The Bearcats have 12 players playing for Division I programs, the most notable being the pair currently starring for the Crimson Tide.
No stranger to Texas’ deep talent pool, Alabama has dipped into Aledo the past two years, plucking four-star running back Jase McClellan in 2020 before landing four-star receiver JoJo Earle in this year’s class. So far, that duo has provided an instant return on investment.
Earle and McClellan have each been recognized by Alabama’s coaching staff over the past two weeks. Earle earned offensive player of the week honors following the game against Mercer as he posted a team-high seven receptions for 85 yards. McClellan has been recognized following each of the Tide’s past two wins. The sophomore back earned special teams honors against Mercer after returning a blocked punt 33 yards for a touchdown. He also took home offensive honors this week after recording four receptions for 41 yards and a touchdown against Florida.
Through three games, McClellan has totaled 173 all-purpose yards while finding the end zone a team-high four times. Meanwhile, Earle has also begun to emerge in Alabama’s offense, ranking third on the team with 10 receptions for 128 yards.
The secret behind the duo’s early adaptation to college’s big stage? That began with a headstart at the high school level.
A winning tradition
During a recent visit home, McClellan was approached by one of his former coaches at Aledo.
“So what’s it like playing under Nick Saban?” the assistant questioned.
“He’s a lot like Coach Buch,” McClellan replied, referring to Tim Buchanan, who has served as the Bearcats' head coach since 1993, transforming Aledo from a struggling program to a powerhouse in Texas football.
Chuckling in the background, Buchanan couldn’t help himself.
“Yeah, but he makes a lot more money than Coach Buch, doesn’t he?” he interjected.
Buchanan might not share Saban’s notoriety or his paycheck, but when it comes to coaching philosophy the two are cut from the same cloth.
“I think we’re very similar in that both programs are trying to do the same thing which is to teach kids how to work hard and how to be productive young men in society,” Buchanan said. “We are using football as a tool to do that. You don’t hear us talking too much about winning championships a whole lot. You hear us talking to kids about taking care of the little things, doing the right things in the locker room, in the weight room, in the classroom and on the field.
“We basically say if you take care of the little things, the winning takes care of itself. From what I’ve heard from Coach Saban, it’s pretty much the same thing over there.”
Aledo’s process-driven approach begins in the seventh grade when players are first introduced to the Bearcats’ complex offensive schemes at the junior high level. From there, the expectation of hard work and excellence is instilled into each player on a weekly basis.
Buchanan meets with his players at the beginning of every season, delivering a similar message: “This is your team. What are you going to do with the opportunity? What are you going to do to be the best football team you can be, and what is it going to take to get there?”
The Friday night lights of Texas high school football also go a long way toward readying Aledo players for the college stage.
Bearcat Stadium’s 8,576 seats are regularly filled during Friday nights in the fall. Those crowds only amplify in the playoffs when Aledo plays in front of upwards of 40,000 spectators inside the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium. Buchanan makes it a point to bring every member of his team on those playoff trips, from ninth-graders to seniors, so that when players are called on to make a big play they are used to the pressure that coincides with that environment.
“I don’t think JoJo Earle or Jase McClellan notice the bright lights of Alabama,” Buchanan said. “They came in accustomed to it. We play some high-profile games in big stadiums, and they’ve been making plays on that stage for years now. So by the time they get to the next level, it’s not a big shock.”
Hard to stop
McClellan piled up 6,897 all-purpose yards and 125 touchdowns while helping Aledo to three state titles over his four seasons at the varsity level. However, when Buchanan looks back at his time with the star back, the moment that sticks out came while the playmaker was on the sideline.
During his senior season, McClellan suffered a small cartilage tear in his pinky finger that caused him to miss four games. While the back campaigned to play through the injury, Buchanan elected to shut him down in order to save him for the playoffs and allow him to heal completely.
That was easier said than done. Buchanan remembers seeing McClellan stir on the sidelines as Aledo struggled during a district game against Midlothian that season. With the Bearcats trailing by a touchdown at the half, the head coach made his way back to the locker room where he was surprised by his star player.
“He’s over there putting his equipment on,” Buchanan recalled. “I go, ‘What are you doing, Jase?’ He goes, ‘Coach, I’m going to go play linebacker. We can’t stop them.’ He was serious.”
McClellan never made it onto the field that week. Fortunately, Aledo didn’t need him to as the Bearcats were able to pull out a 34-28 victory in overtime to keep its district streak alive. The senior was able to return in time for the playoffs where he guided his team to another state title, carrying the ball 25 times for 218 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-42 victory over Fort Bend in the state final.
According to Buchanan, McClellan’s competitive nature is what ultimately drew him to Alabama. The longtime Oklahoma commit was offered early starting opportunities at multiple programs but ultimately chose to flip to the Tide in order to battle for his place in a backfield that included eventual Doak Walker Award winner Najee Harris as well as former Rivals100 members Brian Robinson Jr. and Trey Sanders.
“He’s always been bigger and stronger than anyone else he’s gone up against,” Buchanan said. “Going to Alabama was special for him to get him to even work harder. He wanted that. He told me, ‘Coach, if I go to Alabama I’m going to have to work.’”
Since arriving in Tuscaloosa, McClellan has done just that. After leading the team with 10.65 yards per carry last season, the sophomore has been the Tide’s most versatile weapon this year, contributing in both the running and passing game as well as on special teams.
“Jase is a workhorse, you know, it's hard to stop him,” Alabama outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr. said. “It’s hard to bring him down in practice, especially going against him every day. You know, he comes to practice every day, he works hard. When he gets in, he does his thing. I'm proud of him, and he's just gonna keep getting better and better.”
“Just throw it to JoJo”
During his time at Aledo, highlight plays from Earle became such a regularity that his trainer, Margin Hooks, simply referred to the receiver’s jaw-dropping moments as “JoJo stuff.” Buchanan’s favorite one of those occurred during a playoff game during Earle’s junior season in 2019.
Following a sack and a couple of penalties, Aledo found itself facing a fourth-and-forever situation as it was backed up around the 30-yard line, needing to get to the 2-yard line for a first down. Out of field goal range and too close to punt, Aledo offensive coordinator Robby Jones turned to his head coach in a bit of confusion.
“He comes up to me and says, ‘Coach, I don’t really have fourth-and-30 play,” Buchanan recalled. “I said, ‘I do — throw it to JoJo.’”
From there, Buchanan was met by a series of questions: What route should they run? What if Earle is covered? Are you sure?
Each one was met with the same response.
“Just throw it to JoJo,” he said confidently.
Despite facing triple coverage, Earle outleaped defenders for the ball before making it to the 1-yard line for the first down. The freshman receiver has already flashed that athleticism at Alabama as he outjumped a Mercer defender for a season-long 39-yard reception in Week 2.
“JoJo is a very explosive player,” Alabama safety Jordan Battle said. “He’s very quick. He’s fast. He’s efficient in his routes. We love JoJo. He’s coming along very well. He’s learning the plays, and you can see he’s getting on the field early.”
Earle’s early success at Alabama is a testament to the football knowledge instilled in him at Aledo. Despite missing out on spring camp as a summer enrollee, the freshman wideout was able to master the Tide’s playbook well enough to earn a co-starting spot at slot receiver on the team’s official depth chart.
“He came in with a really professional mindset,” Alabama quarterback Bryce Young said earlier this month. “You can always tell how someone attacks the time away before we start practicing. He came into the first practice with good knowledge of the playbook. You can tell he was studying. That’s something that really caught my eye and a lot of people’s eyes. And then when you get out there and you get to rep against our defense when we started practicing, he was making plays and he looked really good.
“JoJo’s someone that we’re all really excited about. We’re excited to see how he develops.”
Bringing the pair to 'Bama
Buchanan lists Saban just ahead of Mack Brown when it comes to the greatest college recruiters of all time. That slight edge might have something to do with the fact the Alabama coach once helped him formulate a game plan prior to his team’s matchup in the state semifinals.
With Alabama looking to flip McClellan from his commitment to Oklahoma in December of 2019, Saban traveled down to Aledo to visit him at his high school. Knowing that his star back was running a little late for the meeting, Buchanan figured he’d make the most of his time with the Alabama coach.
“We were in the semifinal round of the playoffs, and the team we were playing was doing a few things on defense that I wasn’t 100 percent sure exactly what they were trying to do,” Buchanan said. “When Coach Saban walks in, I just put it up on the video and said ‘Hey Coach, you mind looking at this?’ He sat down and, man, he broke down what was happening and how we needed to defend it. He was telling me how a team had run it against them a couple of weeks earlier. He broke everything down for me. It was really a neat conversation, and it was great to have him do that.”
Saban’s advice helped Aledo to a 28-21 victory over Lubbock-Cooper the following Friday. His meeting with McClellan also turned out to be a success as the four-star recruit flipped to Alabama a week later on Early Signing Day.
McClellan’s flip had been rumored ever since the back took an official visit to Alabama in early November that year. The Tide’s ability to flip Earle from LSU a year later came as more of a surprise.
Buchanan remembers calling a distraught Earle into his office roughly a week before the opening of last year’s early signing period. Generally known for his ear-to-ear smile, the receiver didn’t look himself as the pressures of the recruiting process began to weigh on him.
During the conversation, Earle informed his head coach that he was having second thoughts about joining the Tigers and was considering Texas A&M among a couple of other schools.
“It was the first time I’d ever seen him not smiling,” Buchanan recalled. “He was so stressed. I just told him, ‘Hey, it doesn’t matter if you mark A, B, C or D on this test, whichever school you choose, you’re going to make a 100 on your decision. Just go wherever you feel you are going to be the most successful.’”
On the morning of Early Signing Day, Earle hit his head coach with a surprise.
“JoJo walks up to me and goes, ‘Coach, I think I know who I’m going to sign with,” Buchanan recalled. “I said, all right, thinking it was probably going to be A&M because that’s what he had said earlier. He goes, ‘I think I’m going to sign with Alabama.’”
The news not only surprised Buchanan but also Alabama’s coaching staff which had yet to send over paperwork for Earle to sign during the announcement ceremony scheduled for 4 p.m. that day. Upon informing former Alabama assistant Karl Scott of the receiver’s decision, Buchanan was met with dead silence followed by a few excited R-rated words.
After letting go of Buchanan to break the news to Saban, Scott called back 10 seconds later.
“Now Coach, are you sure?” he questioned. “I can’t go in there and pump-fake the head man.”
Buchanan assured Scott of what Earle had told him and that the receiver’s parents were also on board with the decision. Of course, that didn’t stop the phone calls as multiple Alabama coaches called back over the next hour to make absolutely sure the receiver was indeed set to roll with the Tide.
By 2:30 that afternoon, Earle had received his national letter of intent from Alabama. An hour and a half later, he signed it, donning a crimson sweatshirt and his signature smile.
More to come
Earlier this week, Saban spoke glowingly of Earle and McClellan, commending the duo on the positive contributions they have provided this season. The head coach attributes much of that early acclimation to the development they received at Aledo
“I think first of all, players that come from successful programs usually have the right mindset for what it takes to be successful,” Saban said. “That’s kind of what they came from. But also, a lot of successful programs, players really develop a little bit more in successful programs.”
According to Buchanan, Alabama is only witnessing the beginning of the pair’s potential at the next level.
“Just you wait,” he said. “Both of those guys are special players. It’s going to be exciting to watch them over the next few years.”
Earle and McClellan will look to continue their early success this weekend as No. 1 Alabama takes on Southern Miss on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. CT inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.