TAMPA – The University of Alabama offense needs players like Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart and Gehrig Dieter. Every offense needs wide receivers, and elite offenses need proven playmakers like the Crimson Tide trio.
But Alabama’s offense needs more from its receivers than that. It needs willing and able blockers, even lined up outside the numbers.
“We block and we do whatever the play is called, and if it’s blocking every down, that’s what we’ve got to do,” Ridley said Saturday at the College Football Playoff media day at Amalie Arena.
That’s a strong sentiment from Ridley, who was an All-SEC choice as a freshman with more 1,000 receiving yards. His receiving numbers are all down markedly from 2015, but that alone would be an incomplete assessment of his season.
Dieter was among the nation’s most productive receivers in 2015 before transferring to Alabama. He and Ridley were both among the top 15 nationally in receptions last year; this year Ridley ranks 49th and Dieter’s stats don’t register on a national level.
“At Bowling Green, (my role) was catching 90 passes and being one of the leading receivers in the country,” Dieter said. “Coming here, obviously they didn’t throw the ball as much as we did at Bowling Green. That was fine with me. I just wanted to be in a situation where I could compete and win and be a part of something special.”
Alabama’s return to the national championship game on Monday against Clemson qualifies as something special to Dieter. Alabama’s offense has been special too, scoring almost 40 points per game and averaging 460 yards. The UA offense is scoring more points and compiling more yards than it did last season. The receivers have an important part in that, even if they’re not the ones with the ball.
“You play 30, 40, 50 plays in a game, and 85 percent of those plays you’re not going to get the ball,” wide receivers coach Billy Napier said. “How you play without the ball is a big deal. We like to play on that loyalty. These guys really want to have their teammates’ backs. A lot of what we do we have to block on the perimeter, so it’s critical for our execution. We’ve done well. I think the guys take a lot of pride in it.”
That was never more true than in Alabama’s 24-7 win over Washington in the Peach Bowl. Ridley had a career-low one reception for 6 yards. Dieter had one catch for 10 yards. Stewart didn’t have a reception, though he had two carries.
The receivers still helped the Crimson Tide win. Alabama had 269 rushing yards to move the chains against the Huskies. Alabama’s offense has long been built on a strong ground game, but this year’s edition is different. More runs go outside, which means the receivers have to hold blocks more frequently.
“I think we’ve evolved a little bit and probably do more on the perimeter than we’ve done in the past – screen game, RPOs, that type of stuff – where we’re kind of an extension of the offensive line to some degree,” Napier said.
That’s led to some changes in the way Alabama practices, Napier said. He likes what he’s seen from his receivers this season.
Stewart is often the one leading the way. He’s among Alabama’s bigger receivers, but it’s his attitude that sets him apart. Safety Ronnie Harrison said Stewart seeks out contact on the field.
“In today’s game, so many receivers are so finesse, they’re just speed and want to get the ball in their hand,” Harrison said. “They don’t want to do all the dirty work. ArDarius does all the dirty work. He’s going to block, all that.”
Stewart has certain expectations of himself, and that rubs off on his teammates. Napier said. It shows up on film, too.
“I know No. 11 (Dieter), Stewart, they definitely like to get after cornerbacks,” Clemson cornerback Ryan Carter said. “They definitely don’t shy away from contact. We’re definitely going to have to bring more physicality, especially when trying to set that edge, going against the rush, and getting off blocks. When I see them on film, they’re definitely physical receivers.”
Stewart is also the only primary receiver for Alabama with more yards this season than last. He’s posted a strong season as a pass-catcher even while he hunts down defensive backs on running plays.
That kind of approach means defensive backs don’t get a break. Stewart keeps going at defenders whether they’re covering a route or not, and whether the ball is carried to their side of the field or not.
“I don’t think they’re ready,” Stewart said of opposing defenses. “They don’t see too many receivers that get down and dirty, get to blocking and can run routes and catch passes and have hands. It’s just hard for them.”
There’s often more work for the Alabama receivers this season even if there are fewer catches to go around. The numbers aren’t always there, but the receivers are still part of the plan.
“We’re here,” Stewart said. “We’re in the championship again, so we can’t complain.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.