It’s one after another.
Jerry Jeudy catches a short pass up the middle and takes it all the way for a 58-yard score. The drive after, Henry Ruggs III breaks a tackle to score on a 31-yard catch. On the next scoring series, DeVonta Smith grabs a ball near the sideline and runs down 41 yards into the end zone.
All three of Alabama’s sophomore wide receivers had at least one touchdown tally next to their name against Arkansas State, their most recent game in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“Last year, they called us the Rugrats just because we were the young guys that did what we had to do when we needed to,” Ruggs said afterward. “Some people say we’re the Three-Headed Monster or Super Sophomores. I mean, we have many different nicknames.”
Whatever they are – a trio, a trifecta or a triplet – they’ve combined for nine of the Crimson Tide’s 12 passing touchdowns and 587 of its 924 receiving yards. They average three scores and 196 yards per game so far this season.
“They’re definitely the Super Sophomores,” former UA quarterback Jay Barker said. “I haven’t seen a group with this many guys that are this talented that are all on the field at the same time; it’s amazing.
“These guys,” he added, “may be the best group of receivers we’ve ever seen at Alabama.”
A different look
The trend, at least under Nick Saban, started with DJ Hall. In 2007, he was easily the Crimson Tide’s top receiver with a 530-yard lead over the team’s second man. Julio Jones came along in 2008, followed by Amari Cooper in 2012, and, most recently, Calvin Ridley in 2015.
During their peak seasons, which all featured more than 1,000 receiving yards each, Jones (2010) had 576 more yards than the No. 2 guy, Cooper (2014) had a 1,223 advantage, and Ridley (2015) was up by 345.
They each got the ball at least 26 more times, too. Cooper has much higher totals due to an additional 84 catches.
“Sometimes somebody is so good that you make the team adjust to him,” CBS analyst and former NFL quarterback Gary Danielson said. “… If there is favoritism, you impress upon the importance of why. Usually the players can see what this guy does well.”
Greats are considered great for a reason.
Those four went down in the UA record book with the most career receiving yards. Cooper is on top with 3,463 on 228 catches, Hall had 2,923 on 194 catches, Ridley had 2,781 on 224 catches and Jones had 2,653 on 179 catches.
“When I was in school, we had Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks, who were both awesome, too” said former quarterback Greg McElroy, who played for the Crimson Tide from 2007-10 and is now an ESPN analyst. “But Julio was just so dang good that he worked his way into the bell cow.
“I don’t really like the way it might feel like you’re discrediting the other guys because there’s always been good secondary and tertiary receivers at Alabama. But now, because of the system, it feels like more guys are involved as compared to just featuring one specific one over the other two.”
Alabama has been a lot more pass-happy this season.
Three games in, Jeudy leads the way with 287 receiving yards. Smith is right behind him with 204. Ruggs is further down with 96.
The passes themselves, however, have been distributed pretty evenly among the wide receivers. Jeudy has the most at 11. Smith has 10. Ruggs has eight.
“We saw it coming last year,” Danielson said. “They were too good to keep off the field, all three of them. In certain situations, maybe two of them more than the other, but they were all good. The three of them and Tua (Tagovailoa), but the three of them at first really changed the dynamic of the offense.”
A different challenge
Alabama averaged 193.4 passing yards per game last season and won its 17th national championship. The 2018 team is already averaging 308 yards per outing.
The Crimson Tide’s all-time season record is 277.9 yards per game in 2014. Even then, its average wasn’t as high as it is right now after three games.
“It’s a defensive coordinator’s nightmare to think I’ve got to cover the entire field,” Barker said. “Everywhere you look, there’s a guy that if he catches it he has a chance to make a big play in space and can turn a 5-yard catch into a 90-yard touchdown.”
So, how does an opponent defend Alabama’s Three-Headed Monster? Experts differ on a solution.
“You have to be able to play man-to-man on the outside, and you can’t let guys win the one-on-one matchups,” McElroy said. “That’s the challenge for a lot of teams because most don’t have three good cover guys. They might have one, or maybe in some cases two, but very few have three.”
Barker said: “I wouldn’t go man-to-man against them. I would definitely zone off and try to, at times, disguise it and maybe move into a man or at least a zone three-deep type of situation and get more guys involved in the running game.”
Because if a team ignores the Crimson Tide’s running backs, who are averaging 236.7 yards per game, it’s also game over. There has been a good balance on offense so far, again making it harder for defenses.
“Nobody has figured that out, have they?” Danielson said.
The receivers are all so similar, too. Ruggs is the shortest at 6 feet, but Jeudy and Smith are both just an inch taller. Jeudy weighs 192 pounds, Ruggs is 183 pounds and Smith is the lightest at 173 pounds. That makes it even more difficult for defenses to pick favorable matchups.
“You can’t really key on one guy,” former Alabama wide receiver Richard Mullaney said. “And if you play man, I mean, good luck.”
A different bond
The biggest lesson Alabama teaches is also the hardest: Trust the Process.
Jeudy, Smith and Ruggs were all 5-star recruits when they arrived at Alabama. The only problem was prior personnel: Ridley was still thriving, and Cam Sims and Robert Foster were the other first-teamers. All three are now on NFL rosters.
So, the freshmen had to wait their turns.
“From the day they got in there, they were really good,” Ridley said. “They were already really, really good receivers and they just go better, learning from guys like me who were already there.”
By no means did Jeudy, Smith and Ruggs ride the bench last season. They all played in each of Alabama’s 14 games, even if it was for minimal time.
With just 14 receptions, Jeudy was actually the Crimson Tide’s second-leading receiver last year with 264 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Ruggs was third in line with 12 receptions for 229 yards and six scores – there was point where every ball he caught was a touchdown. Smith caught seven passes for 156 yards and three touchdowns.
“Look, there’s no substitute for experience,” Saban said. “Knowledge and experience are really, really important. No matter how much you try to practice things … you never know until they do it.”
They did it, and they did it as a unit.
“We’re just a group that came in together, worked together and worked hard,” Ruggs said.
And they’re still doing it.
“I say we’re the best wide receiving corps in the nation,” Jeudy said.
Added Smith: “No matter who it is, whichever one of us gets it, we call can make the same play.”
Selflessness surrounds Alabama’s wide receivers. It’s evident when they talk about one another, and it’s even more obvious when they celebrate each other.
Mullaney, who transferred from Oregon State before the 2015 season, remembers that feeling. He played alongside Ridley during the future first-round NFL draft pick’s best season. Mullaney doesn’t remember any talk in the receivers’ room about who had the most receptions or who should be targeted more. It was all congratulatory because success is a team effort and winning is the ultimate goal.
“You feed off each other,” he said. “You know that at any moment he can hit a home-run play, especially when you’re running a route where you’re supposed to take guy to free him up. You take pride in that.”
The same approach
Smith is lined up out left. It’s second-and-26. Alabama is trailing in overtime by three points to Georgia in the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship.
The ball goes airborne, and everyone knows what happens next.
“It looked like warmups,” Danielson said. “He just ran, put his hands up and caught it. There was nothing out of the ordinary in maybe one of the most historical plays in college football history.”
Jeudy and Ridley were there first there to hug Smith. Ruggs joined in inevitable celebratory dogpile.
That’s how last season ended and how the theme for this season came to be. Now the three then-rookies run the Crimson Tide.
“I’m enjoying seeing their success,” Ridley said. “I’m having fun watching them play like they’re playing and the team do so well. I knew they’d do well this season.”
So far, they’ve met the standard that was not only left behind by others but that they helped set last year.
“When you’re that good, if you stick to the fundamentals, the great things will happen by themselves,” Danielson said. “You wonder if they can continue to concentrate on the fundamentals throughout the whole year because it’s coming pretty easy to these guys.”
Or at least it looks easy.
Let’s go back to Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama is facing its first third down of the day and has 5 yards to go at its own 42-yard line. Jeudy motions into the slot. Ruggs is out left, Smith out right. The ball is then snapped to Tagovailoa.
“Just a simple slant that Tua throws 7 yards downfield and the receiver (Jeudy) takes it the rest of the way,” McElroy said. “Like that’s never supposed to be designed to be a touchdown, it’s designed to be a successful play. Now, the threat of going the distance is very real on every single snap and every completion.”
Reach Terrin Waack at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.