TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- A bond exists between members of the same recruiting class, and in particular players at the same position. But a group of Alabama wide receivers felt different last season.
Whether on the field or on the bench, former four-star prospects Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith were practically inseparable as freshmen. In fact, they became part of something of a hockey-style line change for coach Nick Saban and then-wide receivers coach Mike Locksley. Often you'd see Nos. 4, 6 and 11 sprint off the sideline simultaneously and provide an instant spark on offense.
They were low-key for the most part, though, often seen tearing up second-team defenses during blowouts. They worked hard behind the scenes, knowing Calvin Ridley, Cam Sims and Robert Foster would eventually leave for the NFL. They were like brothers with a common goal of playing early, Ruggs said, all the while realizing the supporting role they had to accept at the time.
Then came the College Football Playoff National Championship and suddenly the timeline changed as the understudies all became leading men who helped Alabama's offense become more prolific than any during Saban's tenure.
Everyone remembers the buzz when Tua Tagovailoa, then a freshman, entered the game against Georgia and provided a jolt of electricity to a struggling passing game, throwing three touchdown passes, including the winner in overtime. The left-handed quarterback from Hawaii became a legend that night in Atlanta. What was overlooked in the hail of confetti, though, was the sea change that occurred on the other end of those Tagovailoa passes. Jeudy, Ruggs and Smith emerged, all at once.
In the first half, Jalen Hurts attempted eight passes: five to Ridley, Foster and Damien Harris, and three he threw away intentionally. But in the second half, Tagovailoa targeted Jeudy, Ruggs and Smith a combined nine times. Ruggs caught Tagovailoa's first touchdown, a 6-yard pass in the third quarter. Jeudy's 20-yard catch on third-down kept alive a game-tying touchdown drive in the fourth. And Smith, well, we all know what Smith did. He was on the other end of second-and-26, the winning touchdown pass in overtime.
"We see one person does something the right way," Smith said, "and we just feed off of that."
Now, with Ridley and Foster gone and Tagovailoa as the starting quarterback, they've all become starters and, collectively, one the best receiver corps in the country.
They even have nicknames. Ruggs rattled them off recently: The Rugrats, The Three-Headed Monster, Super Sophomores. And those are just the ones he has heard.
Call them whatever you like. Just know they are effective.
"Those guys are all very dynamic players. They're unique. They can all run the route tree. They can get deep; they all have great vertical speed. And they can also catch the ball underneath and have great running skills. They have quickness and speed, and that's a rarity."Jimbo Fisher
"It's real unique," Smith said, "because now teams can't just focus on one person. They have to focus on the entire offense."
Entering last Saturday's game against Ole Miss, the Rebels were said to have the best trio of receivers in the country in A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge. But the Tide's trio was better. During the 62-7 blowout, Jeudy caught three passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, Smith and Ruggs each had three catches as well, with Ruggs hauling in his second touchdown of the season.
Afterward, Saban said of spreading the ball around, "That's what we tried to do a year ago."
While it's fair to point to Tagovailoa as the change that's morphed Alabama's once conservative offense into the behemoth it has become this season, averaging 56.7 points per game, that's short-changing the new dynamic at receiver. In the past, whether it was Ridley or Amari Cooper or even Julio Jones, the passing game tended to be dominated by a single star receiver. Before the CFP semifinal against Clemson last season, Ridley said he got a "weird feeling" when he saw he had 55 catches and the next closest player had 14. He wasn't happy about it, he explained, because it led defenses to "cloud me and take me out of the game."
It was prophetic at the time when Ridley told reporters, "It's frustrating because we definitely can go out there and sling the ball around. We've got the guys to do it."
Now we're seeing what he was talking about. It happened too late for Ridley, but now we're seeing more production and a different attitude.
Harris, a senior running back, has noticed. He described the trio of receivers as jokesters who are the "life of the offense."
"They keep us laughing," he said. "They are some good guys, some hardworking guys and we're lucky to have guys like that in our locker room."
Said Smith: "It's fun. When someone makes a play, we'll all be happy. We'll laugh at the things on film when good things happen. It's just a fun group to be around."
"We're brothers. We build off each other. We pretty much all try to make plays, and of course you're going to compare my play to your play to see which one's better, whose route was better. But that just makes us better as a unit."Henry Ruggs III
It's also a competitive one.
"We're brothers," Ruggs said. "We build off each other. We pretty much all try to make plays, and of course you're going to compare my play to your play to see which one's better, whose route was better. But that just makes us better as a unit."
On Saturday, No. 22 Texas A&M will get to see how much better a unit it is. The Aggies may have the best defense Alabama has faced this season, but its depth in the secondary will be tested.
There's the trio of Jeudy, Ruggs and Smith to account for, of course. But there's also freshman wideout Jaylen Waddle, who has emerged as a big-play threat worthy of skipping a grade and being adopted into the group of Super Sophomores.
Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher saw Alabama firsthand last season while at Florida State. Now, he says he sees a group of receivers playing with more confidence and a better understanding of the game.
"What I think about them is they're great," Fisher deadpanned. "I recruited every one of them: Jerry Jeudy, Ruggs, Smith, Waddle. We recruited all of them. Those guys are all very dynamic players. They're unique. They can all run the route tree. They can get deep; they all have great vertical speed. And they can also catch the ball underneath and have great running skills. They have quickness and speed, and that's a rarity.
"Those guys are playing fast and loose, no doubt about it."