TUSCALOOSA — Jerry Jeudy can’t help but notice all the familiar faces joining him on the field during preseason practice.
And while it’s not something he tends to focus on in the moment, the Crimson Tide sophomore receiver swells with pride thinking about just how much of his recruiting class could be in the starting lineup when Alabama takes the field for Saturday’s season opener in Orlando.
“Seeing (so many members of the 2017 recruiting class) on the first team, that means they came in with the right mindset,” Jeudy said Thursday. “They all know what they want to do and (are) focused on getting better.”
Just as Alabama coaches turned to Jeudy and then-freshmen pass catchers Devonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III in the historic second-half comeback in January’s national championship game, the success of this year’s Crimson Tide could very well rest on the shoulders of some of its youngest players, especially at receiver.
Not that they’re letting it get to their heads.
“We’re all feeding off each other and helping each other get better and better each day,” said Smith, who caught the game-winning 41-yard touchdown to secure the 26-23 overtime victory over Georgia. “We see one person do something the right way, and we just feed off of that. And anytime we’re doing something wrong, we correct each other. We just help each other.”
After earning quality playing time in key backup roles last year, the 19-year-old receiver trio are among a significant number of second-year players in line to start and be counted on to help secure Alabama’s first back-to-back titles since 2011-12.
Depending on who wins the starting quarterback competition, and which Harris is in the backfield at running back, the Crimson Tide’s first-team offense could feature seven true sophomores in next weekend’s season opener against Louisville, with five having already been effectively penciled in as starters.
Along with the trio of second-year receivers, former five-star linemen Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills Jr. are believed to be shoo-ins to start at right guard and right tackle, respectively. Add to that second-year sensation Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback — who’s still competing with junior incumbent Jalen Hurts, but is widely believed to have an advantage at the position — and fellow former five-star product Najee Harris at running back, roughly two-thirds of Alabama’s offense would've been a part of the 2017 class.
“We’re all really close,” Smith said Thursday. “We understand what’s going on and that we have to be more of the leaders on the (offense), and we’re maturing and getting better and better each day.”
Having experienced many of the same things in the cutthroat world of Division I recruiting, most members of a particular recruiting class tend to form strong bonds that can often carry over to the field of play.
That “recruiting” bond was especially evident in the title game as Tagovailoa appeared to favor Jeudy, Smith and Ruggs in the passing game over eventual first-round NFL draft pick Calvin Ridley, who’s fourth-quarter touchdown reception came on a pass intended for Harris in the back of the end zone.
“I mean it's a pretty strong bond just because that relationship that we built over that time (during our) recruitment,” Ruggs said Thursday. “But (Tagovailoa is) part of the team just like everyone else. We're all brothers. No one man is above anyone.”
Still, given the sheer talent and quality experience gained by last year’s freshmen, one class could very well rise above the others this season.
Not that Alabama’s veteran head coach is quite ready to simply hand over the keys to a bunch of underclassmen just yet.
“I think every guy is a little bit different, and I think every guy's background and circumstance is a little bit different in terms of what their role has been on the team, how much experience they got last year, how much they got to play,” head coach Nick Saban said Thursday. “But I do think that in first games it's really important to be able to put some guys out there who can execute and play together as a unit.”
For Smith and his fellow sophomore receivers, one of the biggest challenges in Year 2 is maintaining focus and not allowing outside influences to distract them.
“Basically, (it’s) more mental things like not letting things bring me down, like (don’t let the) heat slow me down,” Smith said. “Now that I’m getting more reps, I’m out there longer, so that’s really the main thing, just being more mentally focused.”
Which is why, if Smith and a majority of his fellow sophomores continue to show “mental toughness” as Saban likes to call it, Alabama could be in line for an even greater year than the one before it.
“I don't think you can ever exactly predict how that's going to go with every player,” Saban continued. “Some players get affected by how things go in the game, which is another real area of mental toughness. … I think that we have some guys who are really good competitors, (but) some of them haven't been under fire yet and it'll be interesting to see how they respond when the game comes.”