FOOTBALL

Alabama football freshmen who could be Iron Bowl heroes like Ja'Corey Brooks was last year

Nick Kelly
The Tuscaloosa News

Sometimes all a player needs is an opportunity.

Receiver Ja'Corey Brooks certainly had one a year ago once Jameson Williams had to leave the Iron Bowl after he was called for targeting on a special teams play. That left Alabama football without its home-run threat, and someone else needed to step up.

Enter Brooks, who had seen only 88 snaps before last year's Iron Bowl, per Pro Football Focus. Then Brooks was on the field for 66 against Auburn. He made the most of those snaps late in the game.

With Alabama needing to drive 97 yards to force overtime, Brooks caught not one but two difficult passes. The second one is the catch that Brooks secured over his shoulder for the touchdown that forced overtime. It turned Brooks from an unknown freshman into an Iron Bowl hero.

Depending on how this Saturday's game shakes out, another freshman could also have a chance to be a surprise hero. That's particularly the case at receiver.

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No. 8 Alabama (9-2, 5-2 SEC) is favored over Auburn (5-6, 2-5) on Saturday (2:30 p.m., CBS) at Bryant-Denny Stadium, but the Crimson Tide was also favored in the 2021 game. Yet it took the Crimson Tide four overtimes to get the job done.

If this game ends up being close, Alabama might need another freshman to step up. Brooks and corner Kool-Aid McKinstry, who made an important pass deflection on a two-point conversion attempt, showed it's possible to make an impact even as an Iron Bowl newbie.

"Anytime you’ve got a young player who makes outstanding plays, I think it sets a good example for everyone else on the team that they have the opportunity, capability and possibility to do the same thing," coach Nick Saban said Monday, "but they’ve got to do things right in order for that to happen. We’ve got some young receivers, so hopefully they’ll step up.”

Those freshmen receivers are the prime candidates to make a big play if needed.

Maybe it's Kendrick Law. He pulled his hamstring earlier this season and had to miss some time in October, but now he's back at full strength. Law, Saban said after the Ole Miss game, is a player who the staff has been trying to get into the lineup for some time. Law had three receptions for 26 yards in the Ole Miss win and proved to be a steady option for quarterback Bryce Young in that game.

“Kendrick Law has really come along," Saban said in Oxford. "He’s a guy we really were hopeful would be a contributor."

Other freshman receivers who could make a play for Alabama in the Iron Bowl include Kobe Prentice and Isaiah Bond. They each have had flashes of potential this season in small doses. Bond caught a pass for 53 yards against Arkansas and finished with two catches for 76 yards. On the season, he has 12 receptions for 178 yards.

As for Prentice, he was a starter in three games early in the season in the slot before JoJo Earle returned from an injury. Prentice has caught 30 passes for 290 yards and one touchdown. He brought in nine passes for 66 yards against Tennessee.

A freshman hero could also be arise defense. Perhaps when Alabama needs a fourth-down stop late in the game, big Jaheim Oatis could get the game-saving tackle in the middle of the defense.

This game could be a blowout in favor of the Crimson Tide, but in case it's close, a young player might have to be a hero for Alabama again.

“Always be ready when your number’s being called," linebacker Will Anderson Jr. said. Monday. "I think that’s one thing coach (Saban) has been trying to stress, and I think it’s one thing leadership has been trying to stress. You never know when somebody’s going to go down no matter if it’s a big game or a small game or anything. Just always be ready when your number gets called."