Meet CFB's Scariest Unit

Think Tua Tagovailoa is what makes Alabama so explosive? Check out the guys he's throwing to. In what might be college's best-ever collection of talent at WR, the Tide run four superstars deep.
photo of Adam KramerAdam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterTUSCALOOSA, AlabamaAugust 16, 2019

Weeks from now, the end zones will be painted. The field will be pristinely lined. And Alabama's wide receivers, perhaps the greatest collection of talent at the position the sport has seen, will torment defensive coordinators as yet another title hunt takes shape.      

But on this humid, sundrenched Saturday in early August, the four wideouts who scored a combined 39 touchdowns last year are standing idle in their crimson jerseys and white pants. A smattering of media members swarm to ask questions, regularly swatting sweat from their brows. The players and coaches gather in the stands for the team photo.

There is junior Jerry Jeudy, standing in the middle of the end zone, last season's Biletnikoff Award winner and one of the most intriguing wide receiver prospects of the past decade.

To his right is classmate Henry Ruggs III, perhaps the fastest player to ever don a crimson jersey.

Standing behind them, off by his lonesome, is DeVonta Smith, another junior. While Smith doesn't normally have much to say, his walk-off touchdown in the 2018 national championship game is widely regarded as the loudest moment in the program's storied history.

And just a few yards away, the centerpiece of the crowd as he meets the media for the first time, is perhaps the most electric player of them all. While it's rare for a freshman to crack head coach Nick Saban's mighty depth chart, especially when that player hovers around 5'10", Jaylen Waddle was the utmost exception last season.

Together, this unit calls itself the "Ryde Outs," a nickname gifted to them by former Alabama coordinator Mike Locksley. Last year, the Ryde Outs combined to catch 201 balls for 3,597 yards.

"They always refer to us as these really fast cars," Ruggs says. "Ferraris, Lamborghinis. So whenever we go out, we have that mentality. Let's ride."

Competition at the position hasn't driven them apart. If anything, it's drawn them closer together. Each one has a role, which can change on a given day. Each one has a story and a journey, which can often be lost in the day-to-day of this great football factory.

"I've never had a group of wide receivers like this before," Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa says. "I think if anyone in the SEC had the receivers I have, they'd say the same thing. They'd love throwing to these guys. They make it fun and a lot easier for me."


MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 29:  Jerry Jeudy #4 of the Alabama Crimson Tide completes the catch for a touchdown in the fourth quarter during the College Football Playoff Semifinal against the Oklahoma Sooners at the Capital One Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium o
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

In the open field, Jerry Jeudy goes back to where it all began. Back to Deerfield Beach, Florida, where he blossomed into one of the top high school football players in America. Back even further than that, to his childhood, where his repertoire of cuts and jukes and Matrix-like stutter steps started to come together before college coaches and NFL scouts knew they existed.  

"When I catch the ball, the first thing I think about is just scoring," he says. "I just think about backyard football. Back in the day, you made sure you didn't get tackled by the older kids. Now, I just do my best not to get tackled."

Perhaps no player has seen his draft stock soar more in the offseason than Jeudy. At 6'1" and 192 pounds, he doesn't possess the same hulking build at the position as Tee Higgins or Justyn Ross at Clemson. None of the Alabama wideouts do, for that matter. But what he might lack in size, at least to some, he makes up for in seemingly every part of his game.

"He's a playmaker," Ruggs says. "Wild and explosive on the field."

Growing up, Jeudy didn't model his game after Randy Moss. Instead, he found inspiration watching De'Anthony Thomas and Tavon Austin—undersized, quick-twitch wideouts who inflicted much of their damage after the catch.

SANTA CLARA, CA - JANUARY 07:  Jerry Jeudy #4 of the Alabama Crimson Tide scores a first quarter touchdown reception past Tanner Muse #19 of the Clemson Tigers in the CFP National Championship presented by AT&T at Levi's Stadium on January 7, 2019 in Sant
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Their inspiration can be seen in his improvisation in the open field—an arsenal of moves that allows him to turn almost any catch into a game-altering play.

"Everything is just so quick," Smith says.

Last season, Jeudy finished with 68 catches for 1,315 yards and 14 touchdowns. He averaged 19.3 yards per catch. His four catches of 60-plus yards were tied for the most in the country.

His performance earned him the Biletnikoff and made him a consensus All-American. It has since made him one of the most intriguing names in the draft world.

At Alabama, this isn't uncharted territory for a wide receiver. While the offense under Saban was never more explosive than it was last season with Tagovailoa at the helm, there is a certain legacy to uphold.

"It's Julio Jones, Amari Cooper, Calvin Ridley and then me," Jeudy says. "They're doing it at a higher level than me, so I can't really compare myself to that."

But that could change quickly. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has Jeudy ranked as the top overall player in the 2020 class—higher than even his own quarterback. Others across the football landscape share this sentiment.

"Someone is going to overthink that he's not very big," an NFL scout told Bleacher Report. "And they're going to miss out on the next Odell [Beckham Jr.] or [Antonio Brown]."


TUSCALOOSA, AL - SEPTEMBER 08:  Henry Ruggs III #11 of the Alabama Crimson Tide reacts after scoring a touchdown against the Arkansas State Red Wolves at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 8, 2018 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Image
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The wideout many believe will make a run at the fastest 40-yard dash in NFL combine history is eating bacon. Two servings, to be specific.

Seated at a table inside Alabama's football complex, Henry Ruggs slips strips of it out of two Styrofoam containers, mixing in an occasional swig of orange juice. "Time to hydrate," he says with a smile.

Large black headphones are just slightly pulled away from his ears, enough that he can hear questions but ready to be quickly flicked back on when the questions are through. As is often the case, Ruggs doesn't plan on being in the same place for very long. At Alabama, a place that attracts some of the fastest players in the world on a yearly basis, Ruggs is in his own category.  

Smith says even compared to his star receiver teammates, "Ruggs has a different type of speed. This is not your normal person."

Ruggs didn't have to travel far to find a home at Alabama. He starred at Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery, where he scored 20 touchdowns on only 102 touches his senior year.  

While he spent much of his childhood dreaming of one day making it to the NBA, Ruggs' attitude changed once the deluge of football scholarships began to pour in.

He accounted for 741 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns last season, making the most of his 46 catches. And while his speed is unquestionably his trademark asset, he flashed other elements of his game—like his one-handed catch against LSU—demonstrating that he was much more than a gadget player.

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 29: Henry Ruggs III #11 of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates a touchdown against the Oklahoma Sooners at the Capital One Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium at Hard Rock Stadium on December 29, 2018 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mark Br
Mark Brown/Getty Images

One source with the Alabama program says Ruggs has been clocked at 24 miles per hour—the fastest time they've ever recorded. There is anticipation that he might even topple the 4.22-second 40-yard dash record set by former Washington wide receiver John Ross two years ago.

"I wouldn't say I have an expected time," Ruggs says on his current 40. "I go based off feel. Most of the time, I don't feel like I'm at my best. I'll run a 4.34 or something like that, and I know I could do much better."

As for whether he believes he will run his 40 in less than 4.3 seconds, Ruggs wastes little time entertaining the thought.

"Yes," he says without hesitation. "Easily."


MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 29: DeVonta Smith #6 of the Alabama Crimson Tide rushes in the first quarter against the defense of Tre Brown #6 of the Oklahoma Sooners during the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

He knows the question is coming, and he can't hide his disdain for having to relive the moment again—even if it is one of the greatest moments of his life.

"That book has already been written," DeVonta Smith says, hoping to defuse his own legacy. "It's time to write another one."

Wearing a gray long-sleeved shirt and an apprehensive smile, Smith does what he can to distance himself from one of the most important touchdowns in the history of college football.

He can't escape it, though. Not here. Not around campus. Not in his hometown of Amite, Louisiana, where he was thrown a parade despite his reservations. Not even in film sessions years later, where his catch—The Catch, as it's known as in Tuscaloosa—showed up on video in a meeting with the wide receivers earlier that day.

"I'm just tired of seeing it," he says.

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 08: DeVonta Smith #6 of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates after making the game-winning touchdown catch in overtime to defeat the Georgia Bulldogs in the CFP National Championship presented by AT&T at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Janua
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

But it's impossible to disregard. A true freshman wide receiver streaking down the Mercedes-Benz Stadium sideline in overtime of the national championship. His true freshman quarterback hitting him in stride for a 41-yard walk-off touchdown.

It was so smooth and natural that it's easy to forget it was 2nd-and-26. Alabama's season was on the brink. It was only Smith's eighth catch of the season, and no catch has been or will ever be quite like it.

Consider that long before this moment, Smith thought long and hard about giving up football entirely after he broke his collarbone during his sophomore year of high school. "I was done," he says. "I didn't want to play football anymore. I wanted to play basketball, and that was it."

At Alabama, he's widely regarded as the best basketball player on the team, despite being 6'1" and 175 pounds. And he has carved out his niche as being one of the team's most dependable targets, catching 42 balls for 693 yards and six touchdowns last season, even playing through injuries.

"Smitty is the hands guy," Ruggs says. "He's the more competitive catcher."

He doesn't possess the same wiggle as Jeudy or straight-line speed as Ruggs. He does, however, have a place of his very own in Alabama lore.

But this is not the legacy he wishes to leave. He wants to be remembered for the moments most casual fans would look beyond. He wants be known for not one play but the hundreds upon hundreds of overlooked snaps that have come since.

"When you think about receiving, the first thing you gonna say is 'catch passes,'" Smith says. "But what about when you don't have the ball in your hands? What are you doing to help the people around you? I want to do something that a lot of other receivers probably are not doing."


MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 29:  Jerry Jeudy #4 and Jaylen Waddle #17 of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrate the touchdown scored in the fourth quarter during the College Football Playoff Semifinal against the Oklahoma Sooners at the Capital One Orange Bowl at Ha
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The transition to Alabama is not supposed to look this easy. Not for a true freshman. It takes time, often years. Thousands of reps. The Process must play out.

This transition is made even more difficult when you're 5'10" and thrown into an already stacked depth chart. But Jaylen Waddle might just be that gifted.

"If Jaylen gets the ball in space, he can score a touchdown almost at any moment," Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian says. "He's definitely a dynamic player who you have to continue to try to find ways to get the ball in his hands."

There have long been signs that Waddle was capable of this much. "We knew he was special right away," says Steve Leisz, Waddle's football coach at Episcopal High School just outside Houston. It wasn't hard to tell after Waddle's very first touch during his freshman season was a kick return in the playoffs that he ran back for a touchdown.

Over the years, Waddle acquired the nickname "Magic." The origins were simple: He often did things, and still does, that leave people in awe, especially given his height.

Like scoring touchdowns on more than half of his receptions. During his junior year, Waddle did just that: 48 catches for 1,382 yards and 26 touchdowns. He also returned three kickoffs and two punts for touchdowns and scored another four rushing.

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 01:  Jaylen Waddle #17 of the Alabama Crimson Tide runs on his way to scoring a 51-yard touchdown in the third quarter against the Georgia Bulldogs during the 2018 SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 1, 2018 i
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

On the basketball court, like many of his teammates at Alabama, Waddle was also impressive. Despite his size, he regularly uncorked highlight-reel dunks.

"I mean, how many kids at his size can do a 360 jam?" Leisz says. "It's just unheard of."

While he was widely coveted, Leisz says one SEC offensive coordinator declined to offer Waddle a scholarship because of concerns over his size. Alabama had no such concerns and featured him prominently in the offense almost immediately when he arrived.

He finished his freshman season with 848 receiving on 45 catches and seven touchdowns. He also returned punts and averaged 14.6 yards per return.

"I think I do pretty good after the catch," Waddle says. "But I can do a much better job of running better routes. I just want to be more deceptive and be really crisp with everything I do."

While his fellow wideouts will face a decision after the season when it comes to declaring early for the draft or staying at Alabama, Waddle has at least two more years in Tuscaloosa. Two years to showcase to the SEC and beyond just what magic he has to offer.


In many places, this arrangement wouldn't work.

At a time when the transfer portal is becoming a fixture of college football, the search for opportunity to thrive in a given system has never felt more pronounced. Being the third or fourth wide receiver on a team, even a program such as this, wouldn't be palatable for some.

"Those guys are great competitors," Saban says. "They're hard workers. You know, average players like to be left alone. Good players really want to be coached. And great players want to be told the truth. I think these guys are always seeking the truth in terms of what they can do to be better."

Inside one of the most competitive position rooms in the country, there is synergy. There is admiration. Techniques are shared and discussed. Success is crowdsourced, all with the hope of collectively elevating their performance for another run at a national title.

"This is one of the most unselfish groups I've ever been a part of," Smith says. "It's crazy how much talent there is, but we are genuinely happy for each other."

With this, there is an understanding that even on the most prolific Saturdays, there are only so many targets to share. Only so many balls to catch.

There are days when a wideout will be left behind. Not on purpose or by design, but because there are simply too many mouths to feed in this offense. Even on these quiet Saturdays, each player has a purpose.

"They will run as many 'brotherhood routes' as they can," Tagovailoa says. "A brotherhood route is when they know they're not going to get the ball, but they'll run it just to get someone else open. That's been the key to their success, and that's been the key to our success offensively. These guys are all selfless."

While the competition for catches among the Ryde Outs will wage through the fall—and perhaps stretch into the middle of January—there is another piece of this depth chart dilemma.

Teams will have to figure out a way to cover four of the premier wide receivers in the country, brotherhood routes and all. And one of the nation's most exceptional quarterbacks will be on the other end delivering the ball.

Good luck.

         

Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.

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