Alabama

Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle (17) runs against Louisville in second half action of the Camping World Kickoff at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla., on Saturday September 1, 2018.

TUSCALOOSA — Before flashing his “elite” speed on offense, Jaylen Waddle showed the maturity that has Alabama coaches and players eager to see what’s next from the dynamic true freshman.

Making his debut as the Crimson Tide’s new punt returner Saturday, the former four-star receiver from Houston wisely elected to fair catch a pair of first quarter punts rather than succumb to his natural talent and force a big special teams play.

“He’s very mature for a freshman coming in and he knows his role very well,” junior tight end Irv Smith Jr. said, “and he does a good job with that — not doing too much, but just doing his thing out there.”

A year after several true freshmen infused electricity into a lagging Crimson Tide offense — many of whom have developed into sophomore leaders this season — another exciting first-year player is already opening eyes early in his tenure.

Lined up in the slot on Alabama’s third offensive series against Louisville, Waddle fielded a quick backfield pass from sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and quickly cut up field for a 6-yard gain to move Alabama into the Louisville red zone.

After the play, ESPN color commentator Kirk Herbstreit gushed about Waddle’s untapped potential within the Crimson Tide’s promising offense.

“I can’t wait to watch more of the true freshman Waddle,” Herbstreit said on air following Waddle’s first career reception late in the first quarter. “(Alabama) coaches told us that even in camp — they knew it watching him on film, but it’s another thing to see him in camp against your own defense — if you give him the smallest of spaces, he’s going to get through and get a lot of yards. They say he’s as quick as anybody they have.”

While not necessarily as flashy as some that’d follow, including an impressive 49-yard fingertip catch early in the second quarter, Waddle’s first few plays Saturday served to tease the explosive play-making that earned the 5-foot-10 private school standout the nickname “Magic” at Episcopal High in Houston.

That reputation has carried over to Tuscaloosa, where seasoned veterans such as senior linebacker Christian Miller have been impressed with Waddle’s penchant for eye-opening plays during preseason practice.

“He’s been really fun to watch,” Miller said this preseason. “He’s one of those new guys that has come in and, I think, done a very good job just doing what they are asking him to do, and continuing to do so is for the coaches to decide how that plays out, but I think that he’s done really well.”

Now, one game into his career, “really well” could be an understatement.

Waddle earned league honors this week as the Southeastern Conference’s Freshman of the Week after leading the Crimson Tide with 146 all-purpose yards in Saturday’s 51-14 win over Louisville.

Waddle’s impact was multifaceted, too, with the speedster averaging 20 yards on four punt returns — including a 31-yard return just before halftime — while also finishing second on the team with 66 yards on three receptions, including the game-long 49-yard reception early in the second quarter.

“I think the dude runs at least a 4.28 (second 40-yard dash) — legit,” junior tailback Josh Jacobs said of Waddle. “He has legit speed. He’s going to make a lot of big plays. You’ll see a lot of him throughout the year.”

Working mostly out of the slot, Waddle flashed that electric speed on a first-and-10 play two minutes into the second quarter Saturday when he raced past Louisville safety Rodjay Burns on a deep slant and pulled in a slightly overthrown pass from Tagovailoa for the uncontested fingertip reception inside the Cardinals’ 10-yard line.

“He’s very shifty and quick,” sophomore receiver Jerry Jeudy said last month. “He’s got elite speed, so that really helps him so that linebackers and safeties won’t be able to touch him. So, that really helps him get open.”

While his offensive game is what’ll likely earn Waddle the most attention, it was his play as Alabama’s new punt returner that impressed his hard-to-please head coach.

"He caught the ball efficiently and effectively,” Nick Saban said. “We evaluate those things every day when we do punt return (in practice). I thought he'd do as good a job and he had better stats catching the ball, making good decisions and judgments as anyone else on our team.”

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