TUSCALOOSA — Jaylen Waddle can admit it now: Henry Ruggs III is faster than him … at least until their next race.
After much back-and-forth over social media, Alabama’s speedy receivers competed in a 50-yard race in the team’s indoor facility April 30 when Montgomery’s Ruggs edged his Houston counterpart by a smidge after the former Robert E. Lee High track star leaned forward across the goal line for the win.
Asked about the post-spring race Thursday, the sophomore Waddle said he and Ruggs would probably “split” any additional races before conceding: “Ruggs won the last one so you gotta go with the last one.”
Considered the most electric of Alabama’s Big Four at receiver — along with Ruggs, junior Jerry Jeudy, the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner, and junior DeVonta Smith, the other end of the infamous “Second-and-26” play in the 2017 national title game — Waddle is a key cog in an experienced quartet that combined for 3,597 receiving yards and 38 touchdowns on 201 receptions during last year’s school record-shattering season.
But while they clearly work well together, it’s what separates each of the Crimson Tide’s Top Four targets that makes some of their “friendly” interpersonal debates must-see TV.
“It's just a little competition,” Waddle said with a smile. “We like to compete against each other, on the field, off the field. We're really competitive. It's all friendly. Nothing to it really. We just like to have fun.”
That fun also translates away from the field, be it to the basketball court or the occasional video game.
"I'm not a gamer, to be honest. I know that Smitty and Ruggs are really good at (NBA) 2K and Madden,” Waddle said. “Jeudy's really good at Madden, I know that for sure, but me, I'm not there."
All competitions aside, when the Tide’s fearsome foursome is on the field at once, it’ll be a sight to behold, especially for their junior quarterback, returning starter and reigning Heisman Trophy runner-up Tua Tagovailoa.
“Oh yeah, it definitely opens things up. When you have four fast guys out there — when you have Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith — I mean these guys aren’t going to play man, they are going to play zone,” Tagovailoa said two weeks ago. “If they play man against these guys, we gotta go out and torch the defense, and if they are going to play zone, it opens up a lot of the run game. Then, when they end up stepping into the box, then that’s time for RPOs, play actions. It just opens up everything.”
And given that receiver — and the passing game in general — is a clear strength of the team, first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian made it clear he’ll “definitely incorporate” a 10-personnel package — four receivers and one running back — into the weekly game plan this season.
For Waddle, who is technically the Tide’s No. 4 receiver, the ability to go four-wide means greater opportunities all around.
“Yeah, I mean, that’s pretty exciting, just us four being all on the same field,” Waddle said. “So, I think it’s pretty cool … It’s a unique (set-up with) four pretty good wideouts.”
Despite being the youngest last season, Waddle flashed early and often in 2018, finishing second on the team with 848 receiving yards and third with 45 catches and seven touchdowns, averaging 18.84 yards per reception as a true freshman, which ranked fourth overall in the SEC.
“He’s a very dynamic player. He’s the type of guy that if he gets the ball in space, he can score a touchdown at almost any moment,” first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said of Waddle. “I think he’s a young man who works extremely hard, he has a high football IQ, he loves the game of football, he works at it, he wants to be as good as he can be, which are obviously all great qualities to have. He’s definitely a dynamic player who we have to continue to try to find ways to get the ball in his hands.”
How Sarkisian can accomplish that goal, especially with three other equally dynamic playmakers at the same position, will be vital to whether or not Alabama can further build upon its explosive offensive success from a year ago.
For his part, Waddle has spent all offseason working to take his own game to another level, including improving his on-field speed by “getting in and out of my routes a little faster, and just clearing up my releases and making them more believable."
Which begs the question: can an improved Waddle beat Ruggs in another foot race?
"(I’ll) definitely try to,” Waddle said.