Late in 2016, between trouncing Florida in the SEC championship game and preparing for a College Football Playoff semifinal matchup with Washington, Alabama focused on securing its receiver corps of the future.
Jerry Jeudy already had given his verbal commitment a few months earlier, continuing a South Florida-to-Tuscaloosa pipeline that sent childhood friend Calvin Ridley to town two years earlier and Amari Cooper three years before that. And while DeVonta Smith was proving to be a tougher pull out of recruiting battleground Amite, Louisiana, the Crimson Tide had a hometown connection in recently hired director of player personnel Sam Petitto, and the coaching staff felt good about bringing Smith across state lines.
At a lot of places, getting those blue-chip receivers in one recruiting class would have been enough. But not at Alabama, where coach Nick Saban had designs on inking another four-star prospect at the position. He knew just the player he wanted, too: Henry Ruggs III, a raw in-state product just down the road in Montgomery with breakneck speed and hops of highlight-dunk caliber.
Alabama secondary coach Derrick Ansley, who was Ruggs’ primary recruiter, could sense that the U.S. Army All-American was on the fence as the calendar turned toward national signing day. Florida State was hot on Ruggs’ trail, perhaps even in the pole position. Penn State had somehow entered the picture, as well.
“For us,” said then-Alabama receivers coach Mike Locksley, “it was a must-get.”
Ruggs was such a priority that Saban got in a car with Ansley that December and drove to Montgomery to attend a holiday basketball tournament featuring the two-sport star. Saban sat in the stands with Ruggs’ parents throughout the game. Then the coach took it a step further, double dipping as he followed them out of the gymnasium for an in-home visit, during which he dined and signed autographs for some of Ruggs’ extended family.
“That kind of showed him and showed the community how much we wanted him at Alabama,” Ansley said.
But with Jeudy and Smith well on their way, Ruggs had to be convinced that he wasn’t setting himself up to be an unnecessary third wheel. He wanted to know he would play — and play early. How he fit in the offense, Ansley said, was “an issue,” as well.
To quell those fears, Ruggs was reminded how Alabama had made the shift to the spread offense and was now running three-receiver sets more than 75% of the time. “So there’s plenty of opportunity for you to go there and play,” Ansley said.
It came down to the wire, with Ruggs vacillating between Florida State and Alabama. Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt even made some calls, and ultimately Ruggs decided to stay home.
“It was a great finish to the class when we got that commitment,” Locksley recalled.
Jeudy and Smith had the potential to be good, but Locksley and Ansley felt that adding Ruggs to the mix gave the group the chance to be special. Ansley compared Ruggs to former top-10 NFL draft pick Ted Ginn Jr., in that, “When he gets to the top end, that’s it.”
Each wideout did something different, though, fitting together like pieces to a puzzle.
Who knew that puzzle would include one national title, one Biletnikoff Award and counting? SEC coaches would later describe them as “elite” and “electric.” Another coach, Matt Luke of Ole Miss, would crown them “one of the best collections of wide receivers I’ve ever played against.”
With Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback, they would become the star-studded receivers in college football’s version of “The Greatest Show on Turf.”
To say that the transition was seamless would be a lie, however.
The moment Jeudy, Ruggs and Smith came together that summer, it was obvious how talented they were. In fact, a peek behind the scenes would have shown a group too good to be relegated to the second-team offense.
Jeudy had clearly patterned his game after fellow South Florida products Ridley and Cooper, Locksley noticed, showing off some of the most precise route running you’ll ever find in a true freshman. Then you had Smith, who was a beast capable of pulling down every 50-50 ball within reach of his freakishly strong hands. Ruggs, on the other hand, had the kind of speed that made your head spin, prompting Locksley to label him the Energizer Bunny.
“Jerry’s hard to cover,” Ansley recalled. “Henry’s running the top down. And Smitty was just catching everything that was in a 5-yard radius of him.”
Now keep in mind here that Ansley was the defensive backs coach watching five future pros in his secondary — safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison, and cornerbacks Anthony Averett, Tony Brown and Levi Wallace — struggle against a bunch of freshmen.
First, we would hear rumblings of how quarterback Jalen Hurts‘ freshman backup “lit up” the first-team defense in practice. Only later, we would realize that Tagovailoa’s receivers deserved some of the credit, as well.
“They would have battles in practice,” Locksley said. “… Seeing them compete against that caliber of defensive backs, which we had a hell of a secondary that year, we had to say, ‘Hey, let’s get these guys on the field.'”
It was such that Locksley and then-offensive coordinator Brian Daboll took a second look at their personnel and decided that even though they had never used many four-receiver sets in the past, they had to now. So, they created a specific package that pulled the tight end off the field, along with the second and third starting receivers, Cam Sims and Robert Foster, who are still part of NFL organizations today.
Ridley would remain on the field, but the three freshmen receivers joined him, beginning with that first game against Florida State and continuing on throughout the season.
The problem wasn’t opportunity then, so much as it was the results that followed. Ridley led all receivers with 63 catches that season, but the next closest were Sims, Foster and Jeudy, who finished with 14 catches apiece. Ruggs caught 12 balls, while Smith caught only eight.
Locksley, who now is the head coach at Maryland, didn’t sugarcoat the “frustration” that existed among wide receivers not named Ridley.
On top of that, there was a clear separation between the older, established regime that included Ridley, Sims and Foster and the three true freshmen itching to make an impact.
In a way, it bonded Jeudy, Ruggs and Smith together.
“They were like the Three Musketeers,” Locksley said. “They all stuck together, they all rooted for each other, they all helped each other with the freshmen frustration, because they all were guys in their own mind that could easily come in and be starters.”
But that all changed on Jan. 8 in Atlanta.
After struggling to move the ball during the first half of the national championship game against Georgia, Saban made the unprecedented move of benching Hurts in favor of Tagovailoa. And almost as soon as that happened, Jeudy, Ruggs and Smith started having their names called, as well.
Five of Tagovailoa’s 14 completions that night went to his fellow freshmen, including the game winner in overtime to Smith.
“Big-time players, man,” Locksley said. “They’re all different in their own way. They all have that ability to hit that home run.”
The title game was only the prologue. The following season is when the trio of receivers truly arrived on the national stage, emerging not just as starters, but full-blown playmakers.
Jeudy caught a pair of touchdown passes in the opener against Louisville. Then, the next week against Arkansas State, Smith and Ruggs got on the board with one touchdown each.
When one scored, they all celebrated. Which was fitting because, according to Locksley, “Usually when you see one, you see them all.”
“They’re like a pack of hyenas,” he said. “They travel together. They’re always busting on each other, jumping and teasing other people. If one of them gets on you, then the other two join in. It’s never a fair fight with these guys.”
The group Locksley dubbed the Bobblehead Boys because of their uncanny ability to use head fakes to manipulate defensive backs changed along the way, however.
Three weeks after thumping Arkansas State, another blue-chip prospect announced his arrival.
Jaylen Waddle, a four-star recruit out of Texas, joined the receiver room that summer and immediately fit in. It was such that the entire group took on a new nickname — the Ryde Outs — and became even more dynamic.
Waddle was fast like Ruggs, but in a different, more athletic sort of way. Whereas Ruggs possessed terrific straight-line speed, running a reported 4.25-second 40-yard dash, Locksley thought of Waddle as “twitchy fast, where he’s fast sideways and forward and backward and in and out of breaks.”
Louisiana-LaFayette saw it firsthand, as Waddle needed only three receptions to get his first and second career receiving touchdowns, as well as his first 100-yard game.
“He had no problem with fitting in and holding his own with that group,” Locksley said.
Jeudy grabbed the most headlines, catching 68 passes on his way to winning the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver. But he was hardly alone. Ruggs, Smith and Waddle each caught 40 or more balls, and Alabama became the only Power 5 program with four of its players in the top 70 of receiving yards.
This past spring, Saban told ESPN he believed all four receivers will one day play in the NFL.
Jeudy and Ruggs are currently No. 1 and 2 on Mel Kiper Jr.’s list of top-10 prospects at the position, and Smith isn’t far behind at No. 6. There’s little doubt that if Waddle was draft-eligible, he would be somewhere on there too.
“We’ve always had one really good receiver,” Saban said, “but we’ve never had a group like this.”
Every week, it’s someone else’s turn. Smith, who was limited last season by a bum hamstring, set a single-game school record with five receiving touchdowns against Ole Miss. Later, against Arkansas, Jeudy not only caught Ruggs for second all time in receiving touchdowns at Alabama, he surpassed him with his 23rd and 24th scores.
“You have to pick your poison,” Locksley said.
In the process of previewing Saturday’s epic showdown of No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama, ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg spoke to an unnamed SEC coordinator who put it another way: “Alabama’s receivers, you look at them like, ‘Oh, s—.'”
Ansley, who is now the defensive coordinator at Tennessee, struggles to come up with a proper comparison. Maybe he could go back to the Southern California days under Pete Carroll when Mike Williams starred at wide receiver for the Trojans. Or maybe he could go back to Miami when Andre Johnson and Roscoe Parrish teamed up.
“You may could find a duo here or there,” Ansley said, “but never three.”
Locksley can think of only one example, but it’s not from college and it’s not for the faint of heart.
He reaches back to 1999 when Kurt Warner threw the ball to his pick of Az-Zahir Hakim, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. Those St. Louis Rams won a Super Bowl, finished first in offense and earned the moniker of “The Greatest Show on Turf” for the artificial playing surface they competed on.
“Big-time playmakers all on one team,” Locksley said, “and you had to defend them all.”