There’s just no other way to put it: Alabama’s return game in 2017 was abysmal. On punt returns, the top two players, Trevon Diggs with 154 yards and Xavian Marks with 82 yards, averaged 8.56 yards and 7.45 yards respectively. Henry Ruggs got his chances as well, returning 8 for just 46 yards (a paltry 5.75 yards). Damien Harris added 1 for 19 yards. The longest punt return of the season was by Xavian Marks for just 26 yards against Mercer.
Sure, Diggs’ average was ranked #24 in the country; but that’s out of only 53 players who met the minimum qualifications. As a team, the Crimson Tide’s 7.92 yards/punt return was good for just 58th in the nation. Add in all the muffed punts, and, well, yeah. Abysmal.
That changed Saturday night.
True freshman Jaylen Waddle, who had drawn rave reviews in fall camp, trotted back to field punts against Louisville. He had to fair catch a couple, but he took the Cardinals’ third punt for 12 yards. His second return came in the waning seconds of the first half. Waddle sliced his way through the coverage team for 31 yards and put Alabama in position for Tua Tagovailoa to throw his second touchdown of the night. Yep, the second return of Waddle’s career was longer than anything the Tide managed in 2017.
Waddle finished with 80 total punt return yards on just 4 returns (20 yards/return). Waddle was just two yards shy of the mark Xavian hit, and he had 7 more returns and an entire season. And Waddle scored a touchdown on one of those returns, only for it to be negated by an unfortunate block in the back.
Waddle wasn’t the only one who made plays in the return game either. Alabama returned only one kickoff all night, and it was a doozy. After Louisville scored their first touchdown of the night midway through the 3rd quarter, Josh Jacobs took the ensuing kickoff 77 yards to the house, breaking three tackles and scoring Bama’s first kick return touchdown since the 2015 season, Kenyan Drake’s memorable one in the national championship (and I have to give a shout out to Keaton Anderson, who took out two Cardinals with one block.