TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Even though he’s from the other end of the Sunshine State, there’s a natural rationale why Calvin Ridley wants to face Florida State.
Bragging rights are important in Florida, and the Alabama junior wide receiver has them. He’s twice been on the winning side of the SEC Championship Game against the Gators and has won a national championship more recently than any of his home state’s big three powers.
“I liked Florida State when I was coming out of high school, and I know a lot of guys over there,” Ridley said. “I’m just real excited to get a chance to get back out there and compete against one of the best teams in the nation.
“I’m really looking forward to that game.”
Once considered a 5-star prospect, the Fort Lauderdale native naturally wants to show that he made the right decision when he chose Alabama over Miami, Florida State and Ohio State in the recruiting class of 2015. But there will be more than bragging rights at stake when the Seminoles and Crimson Tide meet Sept. 2 in Atlanta, which will make Ridley Alabama’s player to watch.
One can often tell when an athlete is inspired heading into a season, especially when it’s his junior season and an early jump to the NFL is a possibility. Former Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones made that leap and was selected sixth in the 2011 NFL Draft. Likewise, Amari Cooper was taken fourth in 2015 as a junior.
Although Ridley isn’t quite the same in terms of style and development, he hopes for the eventual result — especially after last season.
Similar to how his predecessors saw fewer opportunities as sophomores after defenses adjusted to try and minimize their effectiveness, Ridley saw his numbers drop his second season. He had 72 receptions for 769 yards, down from 89 for 1,045 in 2015. He was limited to two 100-yard performances, against Western Kentucky and Kentucky.
Specific to him, though, was having a true freshman quarterback. Coaches also were conservative with Jalen Hurts, especially down the stretch. Consequently, Ridley was underutilized.
“I know I gotta do better this year for my team and offense so we can get to where we want to be,” he said.
Where they want to be, of course, is in the College Football Playoff for a fourth consecutive time, and specifically the national championship game. Alabama is coming off a 35-31 loss to Clemson, to which coach Nick Saban has told players: “Don’t waste a failure.”
Ridley and his teammates have since heard all the talk — Alabama isn’t Alabama anymore, it’s been dethroned for good, and the SEC no longer stands out in college football.
That’s motivation No. 1, which will only get more intense should Alabama lose a second consecutive game to a team from the ACC.
“We definitely have a chip on our shoulder,” Ridley has said all offseason. Only there’s another layer to it.
Ridley had 6 catches for 14 yards the first time he faced Clemson, and 5 receptions for 36 yards in the second meeting. In two playoff games last season, Ridley tallied 6 catches for 42 yards and no touchdowns.
To be considered an elite wide receiver, he needs bigger numbers against quality opponents, and there will be no better opportunity than Florida State. Not only could this be a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup to kick off the season, the Seminoles secondary features two All-America candidates in safety Derwin James and cornerback Tarvarus McFadden.
How well Ridley does should reflect the Crimson Tide’s chances. If he’s shut down, Alabama will have to rely more on the running attack and other receivers. Should he have a big day, though, the Seminoles could be in for a long night.
This is one hell of an adjustment by Calvin Ridley. Body control on point. pic.twitter.com/PHyBr0uxMT
— Ty Wurth (@WurthDraft) July 22, 2017
Ridley’s numbers will also reflect how much Hurts has improved during the offseason. The quarterback was 7-of-14 passing for 57 yards in a playoff win against Washington, and 13-of-31 for 131 yards against Clemson.
“I think it’s night and day,” Ridley said of Hurts’ spring development. “He’s gotten so much better. He sits in [the pocket] and sometimes when I’m not in, and I look and he’s stepping up, making good throws. So, he’s gotten a lot better.
“It’s going to help us a lot.”
Ridley has embraced the role of position leader, something he really wasn’t ready to do until now. The 22-year-old’s still not the more talkative person, yet he knows everything the receiving corps does this season will reflect on him and seniors Robert Foster and Cam Sims.
Saban has already seen a difference, saying Ridley’s “certainly setting a great example with his work ethic.” Representing the Crimson Tide at SEC Media Days also demonstrated how he’s stepped up.
Ridley has also done so for true freshman Jerry Jeudy, another 5-star South Florida product whom he’s known for years. The veteran hopes the newcomer will be next in Alabama’s string of outstanding receivers. Teammates have used the word “clone” when comparing the two.
What better way for Jeudy to start his career than to make a splash against the Seminoles? And he’s not the only one looking to impress the folks back home. In addition to Ridley and starting safety Ronnie Harrison, Alabama’s roster includes numerous Florida players, including linebacker VanDarius Cowan, tackle Alex Leatherwood, defensive back Daniel Wright and quarterback Mac Jones.
“He can throw,” Ridley said about Jones. “Smart, too.”
They’re the latest in a steady stream of top Florida talent to opt for Tuscaloosa, including Cooper, 2015 Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Trent Richardson. Plus, the last time Alabama played in the Miami area it crushed Notre Dame for the 2012 national championship, which certainly didn’t hurt recruiting.
In contrast, Florida State has only one player from Alabama, senior safety Nate Andrews. He is coming off a medical redshirt.
So for Ridley, the incentives have stacked up, all pointing toward one big game that could set the tone for the entire season. Statistically, he’s hoping it’ll be the first step toward something similar to Cooper going from two 100-yard performances in 2013 to seven his junior season.
“I just want to keep that drive,” Ridley said. “Stay hungry. It’s my third year and just feel like I have so much motivation.
“We’ll be ready.”