TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — To call then the Comeback Kids may not do them justice.
When the University of Alabama football team was down 13-0 at halftime to Georgia in the National Championship Game, Nick Saban made a decision that has been called both obvious and bold when he inserted Tua Tagovailoa in hopes of sparking the offense.
But the quarterback was not the only freshman who was called upon by the coach. In addition to Alex Leatherwood replacing injured left tackle Jonah Williams, Alabama involved players who had also been working a lot with the second unit, including running back Najee Harris and wide receivers Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith.
They all came through, with Harris finishing the game as Alabama’s leading rusher, and the receivers combining for 5 receptions for 90 yards and 2 touchdowns, including the 41-yard game-winner in overtime.
“Najee Harris played really well. Jerry Jeudy made a nice catch at the end,” Saban said. “So this was, I think, one of our best recruiting classes, this freshman class from last year, especially with offensive talent. So that’s something we have to build on.”
Now comes the encore and possibly a whole lot more.
When Alabama secured another No. 1 signing class in 2017, it wasn’t considered just a good group of prospects — it was hailed as possibly being Saban’s best.
It featured 12 players who were rated as 5-star prospects by at least one of the major recruiting services (247Sports, ESPN, Rivals and Scout): Elliot Baker, Isaiah Buggs, VanDarius Cowan, Harris, Jeudy, Leatherwood, Dylan Moses, LaBryan Ray, Ruggs III, Smith, Tagovailoa and Jedrick Wills.
Six were consensus selections. The 247Sports composite lists those six in the top 32 overall: Harris (2), Leatherwood (4), Moses (13), Jeudy (21), Ray (28), Tagovailoa (32). Willis just missed at No. 34. Alabama also added 13 consensus 4-star players.
Saban’s Alabama recruiting classes
Only one of the dozen who earned five stars by at least one recruiting service didn’t play this past season: Baker, who was widely considered the top junior college offensive tackle in the nation. The other JUCO addition, Buggs, made 13 starts on the defensive line.
Overall, 17 true freshmen saw game action during the 2017 season, with Cowan the last to enter the mix against Tennessee. That was on a team that saw 17 players make their first career starts, including Wills at right tackle against Ole Miss (with an unbalanced offensive line) and Moses against Mercer.
“These young freshmen, they’ve been playing all year,” said former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, now with the Buffalo Bills. “I don’t think the moment was too big for them. They’ve very grounded. They just understand what their job is. For young guys they’re truly young professionals.”
“A lot of those guys are really mature for their age,” Saban said.
How many players after making a mistake like having a pass intercepted in the National Championship Game would subsequently put his arm around the coach as they walked and discussed what had gone wrong? The mistake was a missed signal, so everyone except Tagovailoa thought the play was a run and he still forced the throw.
It was a freshman gaffe. There were some others as well, like the sack on the first play of overtime. That play could have been disastrous, but obviously things worked out. So did the one in which he somehow avoided getting dropped in the backfield on third-and-7 and turned it into a 9-yard gain.
That was the offense’s key play that led to Ruggs’ 6-yard touchdown catch on Alabama’s second possession of the second half, and it rekindled the offense.
— Paul Biancardi (@PaulBiancardi) January 9, 2018
“I always kind of tell Tua that the one thing we have in common is we’re both sneaky quick and sneaky athletic,” Saban quipped afterward. “I’m right-handed. He’s left.
“But I think that the one thing that people probably underestimate a little bit, from his perspective and from his standpoint as a player, is he does have really good quickness. He is, I think, sometimes underestimated in terms of his ability to make plays with his feet, and he made a fabulous play on that third down.”
Actually, all of the freshmen were probably underrated a little just because they were in their first year, although it is becoming more common for newcomers to play for the Crimson Tide. In 2016, Jalen Hurts became the first true freshman to start at quarterback for Alabama since Vince Sutton in 1984.
In 2008, Mark Ingram scored 12 touchdowns to go with 728 rushing yards, and Julio Jones had 924 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns.
This group didn’t put up the same individual numbers, but it was clutch and got better as the season progressed.
For example, Smith had only 7 receptions, but in addition to the one that made history he also caught the game-winning 26-yard touchdown slant at Mississippi State. Ruggs finished with 12 catches, with six resulting in touchdowns.
“His first 5 catches were all touchdowns,” said running back Damien Harris, who will return for his senior year. “I’ve never really seen that or heard of that before.”
They also earned their roles. Alabama had a program-record 12 early enrollees last spring, including a lot of those players who made their marks in the title game: Najee Harris, Leatherwood, Jeudy and Tagovailoa.
That and their work ethic are why they didn’t look like freshmen against Georgia.
“They came in and they worked hard from Day 1,” outgoing wide receiver Calvin Ridley said.
Alabama freshman contributions
|Passing yards||30.6 percent||88.8 percent|
“I think preparation leading up to this point has been the key thing with our offensive coaches helping us throughout the process, and just building the trust within each other, from the O-line to the receivers creating a bond with each other,” Tagovailoa said.
“I think that’s helped us build confidence coming into this game to where, if you’ve got to go in, if your number’s called, then you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to give the team the best placement — or how should I say this? To give the team the best opportunity to win the game.”
In a couple of weeks, they’ll start all over again, with offseason conditioning followed by spring practices. Only this time they’ll be competing to start. All three starting wide receivers need to be replaced. Leatherwood and Wills will be pushing for spots on the offensive line. Tagovailoa is poised to challenge Hurts. Najee Harris will be in the mix more in the backfield.
Sick of Alabama’s domination? Tough luck. Freshmen led The Tide in passing yards, rushing yards and receiving yards in The National Championship game.They’re not going anywhere
— trey wingo (@wingoz) January 9, 2018
Everyone’s already seen what they can do on the game’s biggest stage. Consequently, what happened in Atlanta may have only been a beginning if they can keep that same mental makeup that led the comeback.
“Everyone was just saying the same thing: It’s not over until the last play,” Smith said.