TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — There’s a difference with Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley this spring, and it’s exactly what the coaches were hoping to see.
He’s the clear leader of the wide receivers, a responsibility Ridley had been more than happy to let others fill, primarily ArDarius Stewart. But no more.
“I want to take that role on and not only to my group but my team, and be one of the captains on the team,” said Ridley, who heads into his junior season. “That’s what I feel like I need to do.”
With a strong group of new receivers, Ridley is on the record saying that Jerry Jeudy reminds him of a younger version of himself, and that he hopes the early enrollee breaks his school records for most catches receiving yards by a freshman.
“That’s my boy,” Ridley said of Jeudy.
So naturally there’s a lot of speculation that Jeudy could be the next Ridley.
He’s not, at least not yet. For 2017, the next Calvin Ridley figures to be Calvin Ridley.
Recent history tells us so.
Since Julio Jones landed at the Capstone in 2008, Alabama annually had an All-America candidate at wide receiver, or someone that everyone knew was going to be “the guy” at the position. Even though he wasn’t a starter at the beginning of the 2014 season, Ridley took that mantle from Amari Cooper and went on to be named to Freshman All-America teams.
Those three receivers are all in the top four on Alabama’s career receptions list along with D.J. Hall, who played his senior season under Nick Saban in 2007. Hall is the only Crimson Tide player with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in receiving yards. There have been seven overall.
With 161 receptions over two years, Ridley is within striking distance of Cooper’s school record of 228.
But Jones, Cooper and Ridley also saw a significant drop in production as a sophomore.
• 2008: 14 games, 58 catches, 924 yards, 15.9 average, 4 TDs
• 2009: 13 games, 43 catches, 596 yards, 13.9 average, 4 TDs
• 2010: 13 games, 78 catches, 1,133 yards, 14.5 average, 7 TDs
• 2012: 14 games, 59 catches, 1,000 yards, 16.9 average, 11 TDs
• 2013: 11 games, 45 catches, 736 yards, 16.4 average, 4 TDs
• 2014: 14 games, 124 catches, 1,727 yards, 13.9 average, 16 TDs
• 2015: 15 games, 89 catches, 1,045 yards, 11.7 average, 7 TDs
• 2016: 15 games, 72 catches, 769 yards, 10.7 average, 7 TDs
There are numerous reasons why each experienced a sophomore slump in stats,. Injuries were a factor.
Cooper and Jones both bounced back with eye-popping junior years.
Both worked with a different starting quarterback. Cooper also had a new offensive coordinator with Lane Kiffin, who came in with a strong reputation for throwing the ball to one player in particular until the defense took that option away.
“I like how he calls the game,” Cooper said about Kiffin before his senior season, when he won the program’s first Biletnikoff Award as college football’s best receiver.
They also saw defenses counter Kiffin’s scheme during the second year and do what they could to minimize effectiveness in the passing game.
“Just because Julio isn’t catching balls doesn’t mean he’s not involved,” former quarterback Greg McElroy said during the 2009 season. “He’s very involved. There are four eyes on him every time he comes near the ball, the safety and the corner. He makes a difference whether he catches a ball or not.
“He’s a great player and that’s why we can’t get him the ball sometimes. Honestly, I’m going to put the ball where my reads take me. The fact that Julio is such a great target, and a great talent, people are going to do their best to limit his touches and production.”
At the time, Saban used one of his favorite coaching expressions:
“There is an old saying, if you take what the defense gives they will eventually give you the game.”
Alabama went on to win the national championship.
Cooper went through something similar in 2013, as seeing a safety over the top to help in coverage became more common.
“They guy’s really an explosive guy,” Saban said about Cooper in the spring of 2014. “He’s got great speed, he’s got really good hands, he’s got good size. He can catch the ball vertically down the field. He’s difficult to cover coming out of a break. He’s good against press (coverage), so he’s a pretty hard guy to stop unless you put two guys on him.”
But the receivers also improved and adjusted, especially since it was obvious that they might have an opportunity to make the jump to the NFL a year early.
Ridley appears to be on a similar path. He is hitting the weight room and looks thicker as a 22-year-old. He is leading drills and trying to do all the little things that might help lead to a big season.
“I lead by example already, I think,” he said. “I just need to speak up some.”
To those who have been around the program for a while Ridley sounds like an echo of Cooper and Jones, who weren’t particularly outspoken either.
The circumstances may be different, with quarterback Jalen Hurts a returning starter as a sophomore and Brian Daboll the new offensive coordinator, but all the signs are there for potential big third season.
“Calvin Ridley has had a really good spring so far and has shown a little bit more leadership,” Saban said. “Certainly setting a great example with his work ethic.”
Remember those last two words in particular. It was primarily because of their work ethic that Jones became the sixth-overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft, and Cooper was picked fourth overall in 2015.