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89 Days ‘Til Alabama Football: ‘Dawgs dare Calvin Ridley to beat them. He does.

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Ridley was the answer to “who’s next” after Amari Cooper’s departure.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Entering the 2015 season, Alabama didn’t look to have too many questions at wide receiver. The Tide had just sent Heisman Finalist, Biletnikoff-winning, consensus All-everything Amari Cooper to the Oakland Raiders as the NFL Draft’s 4th overall pick. Losing his 2014 production (1727 yards, 16 touchdowns, 124 receptions) would devastate most teams.

For Alabama, after the back-to-back careers of Julio Jones and Amari Cooper, the question became, “who’s next.” But, for the first third of the season, it was an unanswered one.

The Tide was long on talent: several recruits were thought to have the ability to grow into the WR1 job — in a year or two. Alabama had just accepted the grad transfer of Oregon State’s leading receiver, Richard Mullaney (see my comment below for an interesting note.) Younger guys like ArDarius Stewart had showed some promise. But, by far and away, the conventional wisdom had Chris Black and Robert Foster penciled in on the depth chart. Conventional wisdom got it half right.

First, the oft-injured Chris Black was hurt again in the Spring, and he was never able to get completely healthy enough to contribute. Compounding matters, Black decided that he was a better slot receiver than as an outside player. Next, Robert Foster, coming off a RS Fr. campaign that limited him to 6 catches in 2014, went down in the middle of a turnover-plagued loss to Ole Miss. This seemed calamitous, Foster had decidedly earned the No. 1 job and was having a nice start to his RS So. season, notching 10 catches for 116 yards in his first two + games.

New starting QB Jake Coker was still developing chemistry with the corps (and ignoring O.J. Howard,) but the marquee spot was still up for grabs. Worse, in the next game where Alabama was tinkering to find with an offensive identity, no one had emerged the outside, although Mullaney seemed to have the best rapport with Coker. It looked to be a fairly mediocre move-the-chains-by-committee approach in the passing game, with true freshman Calvin Ridley in no way showing that he could fill Cooper’s ample shoes.

In those first four games of the season, Ridley had seen his share of targets: He 17 catches for a modest 134 yards. Had shown some crisp route running, shifty feet, and a willingness to go over the middle into traffic. Still, he did not get his first score until the 4th game of the season. And, his hands, my god his hands — Ridley had dropped an unheard-of seven balls already, including two touchdowns. The Tide was treading water heading into a huge must-win road game at No. 13 Georgia, a game that would be played in the driving rain and gnashing teeth of Hurricane Joaquin’s remnants. Few thought that would be the occasion for a coming-out party.

Against Georgia’s aggressive man defense, Ridley put it all together — he beat his men off the line using a combination of footwork, hand strength and speed. In one-on-one coverage, he blew by corners. In the open field, he left linebackers helpless and drew safeties’ attention. For the day, Ridley finished with five critical catches for 138 yards and a huge touchdown, as the Tide trounced the ‘Dawgs 38-10.

A star was born.

His performance against Georgia would not be an outlier. In the remaining 10 games of the season, Ridley’s emergence (and the six extra touchdowns he tacked on) was the single greatest factor to a healthy Alabama offense, Jake Coker’s development, and Derrick Henry’s Heisman run. He single-handedly stretched the field and loosened the defense; his hands finally caught up to the rest of his body; and he terrified defenders called upon to guard the freshman wideout.

But, when asked of that which he is the proudest, the 6’1” 188-pounder invariably cracks a broad smile and says that it is his blocking that he enjoys. And, when he lights into a DB, it is a joy to behold.

For the season, Ridley finished with 89 catches on the year. That is the most receptions ever for a UA freshman and the second-most by an Alabama receiver ever. He ended the year with 1045 yards, one of only five Tide wideouts to record a 1000-yard receiving campaign.

Last year, he had a “down” campaign. He still tallied 72 catches for 769 yards and notched 7 more touchdowns and added another on the ground, exceeding his scoring output. While the breath-taking vertical shots were limited by Jalen Hurts learning curve and the offense, his YPC did not suffer terribly. His production went from 11.3 as a frosh to 10.6 as a sophomore. A lot of players would kill for that kind of “down year.”

Expect more big things from Ridley this year, almost certainly his last on campus. The former All-American is poised to do big things again with the renewed emphasis on vertical passing. And, given this Tide passing attack, he won’t be the only one.

89 day ‘til Alabama Football.

Roll Tide