Jaylen Waddle has changed the course of multiple University of Alabama football games with returns this season.
His 77-yard punt return for a touchdown against LSU and his kickoff return for a score against Auburn are the two most obvious examples, but there was also a 43-yard return against Texas A&M that put UA in the red zone, setting up an easy score for the team’s first two-possession lead of the day.
Doing the same against Michigan may be his most difficult task to date.
The Wolverines bring to the Citrus Bowl the nation’s No. 15 punter, as senior Will Hart is averaging 45.09 yards per punt. Michigan is one of just 30 teams in the nation that has not allowed a punt return of 20 yards or more, while Waddle is far and away the nation’s most explosive punt returner: his 11 punt returns of 20 yards are more are five more than any other FBS player this season.
“It’s very difficult when he’s in space because he’s very fast and quick. You don’t know what he’s going to give you,” UA cornerback Patrick Surtain II said. “You have to figure out ways to stop him. Just looking at taking leverage away from him, deciding which way to go.
“I wouldn’t say a guessing game, because if you guess he can make you miss.”
Granted, Waddle has faced an elite punter in the past and seen great results.
Texas A&M punter Braden Mann won the Ray Guy Award in 2018 and returned for his senior season this fall. Waddle returned all four of Mann’s punts for a total of 128 yards, more or less neutralizing the impact of Mann’s 199 yards of gross punting. UA used Waddle to have an average field position advantage of 25 yards and win that game 47-28.
To date, Waddle’s punt returning has been his best way to impact UA’s games. Even after 98 receiving yards and three touchdowns against Auburn, Waddle still has nearly as many punt return yards (474) as he has receiving yards (553) despite 19 punt returns to 32 receptions. That will change as soon as the Citrus Bowl ends, as UA is likely to lose at least one of its current top trio of wide receivers, but the Iron Bowl showed Waddle can hurt opponents in ways other than catching punts.
“I think people try to make this like I’m a returner that plays receiver, but I work real hard at receiver, so I’m a receiver who returns punts,” Waddle said.
Still, in this game, Waddle has a chance to do something to Michigan that no opponent has done yet: hurt it in the punt return game.
“Every time he touches the ball I hold my breath because he’s just an explosive receiver, explosive punt returner,” wide receiver Jerry Jeudy said. “So no matter what he’s going to always make plays, find a way to make plays because that’s the kind of player he is.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson