The job of the wide receiver has changed at the University of Alabama. Given the depth of talent in the room, none of them are granted the bulk of targets that Amari Cooper once handled, and given the accuracy of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, none of them are required to make something of nothing.
The most crucial part of their job becomes what they do after the catch. DeVonta Smith’s start to the season shows the emphasis at work.
Through three games, Jerry Jeudy has been the No. 1 target: he has been targeted 34 times (32 percent of all targets) while Smith, Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle has been targeted a combined 48 times. Yet, Smith still enters Saturday’s game against Southern Miss seventh in the SEC in receiving yards (237, 79 per game) thanks to what he’s done after the catch.
“His run-after-catch ability is improving tremendously,” UA defensive back Trevon Diggs said. “He can go and catch a ball and do the same thing such as Henry Ruggs: catch a ball and just go fast, and they’re all fast. You’ve seen that change in his game tremendously.”
Smith being more dangerous after the catch is no accident.
UA has been throwing more often than it’s been passing recently, and many of those have been run-pass options (RPOs). RPOs by nature put the ball where there is space, so when Smith gets the ball, he is often in a 1-on-1 situation, as was the case on several slants he ran in catching eight passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns against South Carolina.
From there, it’s on Smith to win the 1-on-1. He spent an offseason honing that craft.
“I feel like I just looked at some of the things, and (wide receivers coach Holmon) Wiggins brought this to my eyes, in open field stop trying to be a magnet to the safety and things like that and try to make more people miss,” Smith said. “That’s just things that I did in high school, and I just feel like I should bring that back out instead of run through everybody.
“I think that’s all, really just knowing what you’re able to do. If it’s a lot of space, why would I run into somebody? I just feel like I had to get that back in my head. Just like go where there’s nobody at.”
Yards after the catch are the reason for Smith’s success, and frankly for most of the offense. Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus reported 72 percent of Tua Tagovailoa’s 1,007 passing yards have come after the catch. Smith adding a new and improved after-the-catch approach to his game makes him all the more deadly as a receiver.
“He’s like a complete receiver to me. He’s one of my favorite receivers to guard because you never know what you’re going to get,” Diggs said. “He’s tall, he’s quick, he has good hands. You can be right there and he’ll still catch a ball over you. He can jump high, too. I like going against him a lot.”
Only on a roster like UA’s could one like Smith be relegated to something less than a feature role — not that it bothers Smith. The approach goes back to his decision to hone his after-catch craft in the offseason: it’s not about creating opportunities, it’s about capitalizing the ones he gets.
“I don’t feel like I’m being overshadowed,” Smith said. “The chips fall where they’re supposed to fall. Based on the game plan, it don’t matter who it is, it’s just all about who we playing and what they do. It can be any week. It can be me. It can be Waddle. It can be Ruggs. It can be Jeudy. So, it just depends on what the game plan is.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson