TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Xavier McKinney struggled to follow directions during Alabama‘s media day this past Saturday. The veteran safety was asked by a reporter to use one word to describe each of the Crimson Tide’s top four receivers and he simply couldn’t play along.
He tried, of course; it’s just that one compliment beget another which beget another which beget another.
“It’s a lot of words,” he said about Jerry Jeudy, the ringleader of the receivers, who finished last season with 1,315 yards, 14 touchdowns and won the Biletnikoff Award. “Fast, explosive, gets you on your toes.”
Then came Henry Ruggs III.
“Fast,” McKinney said. Then, because that wasn’t enough, he doubled down: “Super fast.”
Same with Jaylen Waddle.
“Fast,” McKinney said, grinning. “Super fast.”
McKinney couldn’t help it. He goes against these guys every day in practice, and to even single anyone out is difficult, let alone describe them in one word. Ruggs caught 11 touchdowns last season as a supposed secondary target and Waddle finished second on the team in receiving yards (848) as a true freshman who technically started only three games. If McKinney is caught sleeping, he knows that any one of them will take advantage.
“They’re all super fast,” McKinney said before we could reach the fourth and final subject in our now-failed one-word game, DeVonta Smith. “They all pretty much have the same characteristics, the same ability.”
When it comes to Smith specifically, though, it was as if McKinney had something he had to get off his chest. Jeudy, Ruggs and Waddle all made preseason All-SEC teams, but Smith didn’t and McKinney wanted to remind everyone how, despite dealing with a bum hamstring the entire second half of last season, he finished with 693 yards and six touchdowns.
“That’s the thing: A lot of people, from what I’ve seen, they’re sleeping on Smitty,” he said. “But I don’t know why. He’s one of those guys. … Literally, they do all the same stuff, the same exact way. They may not be in that role to showcase that, but in practice, if you were to go to the practice and watch, you’ll see it: There’s no difference, there’s no drop-off.”
While it’s understandable to get caught up in Jeudy’s eye-popping numbers or Ruggs’ blinding speed, overlook the others at your own risk. There’s proven parity as all four receivers — Jeudy, Ruggs, Smith and Waddle — ranked in the top 70 of total receiving yards in the Power 5 last season. No other team in the country — not Clemson with Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins, and not Oklahoma with Hollywood Brown and CeeDee Lamb — could say that.
Those figures are even more remarkable when you consider that only a year earlier it was basically Calvin Ridley and the Low Tide, as Ridley caught 63 balls and the next-closest receiver was Cam Sims with 14 catches. It wasn’t until the championship game against Georgia when Tua Tagovailoa came off the bench that things started to change. Jeudy, Ruggs and Smith were targeted a combined nine times in the second half, and Smith capped it off with the game-winning touchdown catch in overtime. They’ve been off and running ever since.
Last season, Waddle joined the crew and the old monikers of the Super Sophomores and the Three-Headed Monster had to be retired in order to account for the true freshman from Texas. A full-blown foursome, they go by the Rideout Boys now.
“We have a great bond,” Jeudy said, trying to make sense of their success.
The key, Jeudy explained, is how unselfish they are. Tagovailoa backed up that assessment at SEC media days last month, noting how hard the group runs what’s called “brotherhood routes” — running routes at full speed even though they know they’re not likely to get the ball.
Off the field, they hang out with one another, playing video games or shooting hoops. Jeudy spoke in glowing terms of Smith’s ability on the hardwood.
But there’s a competitiveness that burns amongst the group, too. It’s why after practice, almost daily, you’ll find them racing one another to see who’s fastest. When Ruggs, who reportedly runs a sub-4.3-second 40, went head-to-head with Waddle this summer and the video surfaced online, fans went gaga and the clip was viewed more than 78,000 times.
“That’s just the competitive mindset we have with one another just to prove to each other who’s the best and who’s better at this and that,” Jeudy said.
Tagovailoa, for his part, wouldn’t dare pick a favorite. When asked to do so at SEC media days, he shot back, “You’re going to get me in trouble, bro.”
“I’ve never had a group of wide receivers like this before,” he said. “I think if anyone in the SEC had the receivers I have, they’d say the same thing. They’d love throwing to these guys. They make it fun and they make it a lot easier for me.”
He later added: “You can throw a route that may not even be a route and they’ll make something of it.”
Tagovailoa might have been thinking of his first touchdown last season when he blindly threw a pass into the corner of the end zone against Louisville, which Jeudy hauled in. Or maybe it was Ruggs’ spectacular one-handed grab against LSU that came to mind. Or maybe it was one the many times when he threw a quick slant that his receiver promptly transformed from a menial gain into a long touchdown.
Even LSU All-American safety Grant Delpit had to acknowledge that Alabama had the best offense he’s ever faced.
“Shout-out to them,” he said. “Tua and that group of receivers, they’re great. They’re great athletes and they definitely know what they’re doing.”
What Delpit remembered most was how effective the short passing game and run-pass option were for Tagovailoa & Co., as the Tide got the ball into their playmakers’ hands in space.
The result: No team in the country averaged more yards after the catch than Alabama (8.31).
As McKinney can attest, their speed can stretch a defense thin.
This season, Jeudy — as the reigning Biletnikoff winner and the No. 1 prospect on Mel Kiper Jr.’s Big Board — will continue to garner the most attention. But, lest you think it’s a one-man show when it comes to the NFL, Kiper also listed Ruggs as the fifth highest-rated underclassman receiver.
A healthy Smith could very well creep into the conversation as an early-round draft pick, as well. And it won’t be long until Waddle shows up on 2021 draft boards.
“He’s the type of guy that if he gets the ball in space, he can score a touchdown at almost any moment,” offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said of Waddle.
With a lack of experience at tight end, don’t be surprised if Sarkisian leans on more four-receiver sets in order to get all those playmakers on the field at once. He’d be remiss if he didn’t, he said.
“If they’re standing next to us on the sidelines, something’s wrong or we feel good about something else that’s happening (on the field),” he explained.
Jeudy said he tries his best to stay in the moment, but he admitted that from time to time he’ll get caught up in all the talent assembled in one position group. Their competitiveness, their mindset to “dominate every time” pushes each one of them to be better, he said.
“With those guys, you have to make your opportunity count because you’ll never know when is going to be the last time touching the ball,” Jeudy said. “Because with them, they can take it to the house any time.”
Alabama used to be a one-man show when it came to the receiver position. Now it’s difficult to settle on just one word to describe how dynamic the receivers have become.
They’re not just fast. They’re super fast.
They’re not just good. They’re super good.