There is no actually replacing Jaylen Waddle, of course. He was one of the best receivers in the country and could do so much on offense and special teams.
Still, you have to try.
After Waddle went down on the opening kickoff, RS sophomore Slade Bolden - who was a member of the Class of 2018 along with Waddle - was immediately inserted into the starting line-up. And he wasn’t just an afterthought, an extra body to fill out the three receivers sets. Bolden drew 7 targets and hauled in 6 of them for 94 yards (his lone drop was a short heater from Bryce Young in the endzone). They also used Bolden in a way they used Waddle (you’ll see below) at times.
Bolden is no Waddle, and I don’t mean to argue he is. But you can see there’s a lot to like about the third year receiver.
1st and 10: Alabama wastes no time in getting Bolden (#18) involved. They have two receivers on the boundary side with Bolden in the slot. Mac Jones fakes the handoff, which the linebacker bites on. Bolden is completely uncovered and turns around for the quick hitch after five yards. Bolden gets an easy reception and turns upfield for some easy yards after the catch.
1st and 10: Alabama obviously liked what they saw on the first play. It’s a similar formation with the two receivers on the short side of the field, and Tennessee again has no one to contest Bolden until after he’s gotten going. Jones fakes it to Najee Harris (#22) again, which again gets the linebackers moving up instead of back initially. The safety comes down to take away the quick hitch; but Bolden runs a crosser and nobody takes him, leaving him wide open. Jones has the time for the play to develop and throws it a little high, but Bolden is able to snag it without much difficulty. And he has a whole lot of room for extra yards.
4th and 3: Bolden has also taken over Waddle’s punt return duties. He called a fair catch on the first one, but he sees an opportunity to field this one and does so. Bolden catches it and promptly spins around backwards. That lets him break that first tackle. He then plants and changes direction and squirts by the second defender. Bolden doesn’t have much running room, though, and runs it out of bounds after a four yard gain. It’s not a big play; but you can see Bolden’s aggressiveness, confidence, and elusiveness here.
2nd and 3: Bolden starts in the backfield on the boundary side while Najee Harris is out wide. There are two receivers on the field side with the tight end on that side as well Harris motions into the backfield, and then Bolden motions out of the backfield to the left. Jones fakes it to Harris before throwing to Bolden (it’s backwards, so this technically counts as a run). Nobody followed Bolden, so he should have a lot of running room. Unfortunately, the safety reacts and closes quickly, and the wide receivers don’t do the best job blocking. Bolden also starts to go inside the blocks when he probably should’ve gone outside. But this shows the staff was comfortable plugging Bolden into this role. We’ve seen Waddle utilitized out of the backfield, and we saw it with Bolden. Also, Bolden played quarterback in high school and threw a trick pass last year. We may never see that happen, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
2nd and 1: Hey, this formation looks similar. Bolden in the backfield on the boundary side, and Najee Harris in the backfield with him. Two wide receivers in between the numbers and hashmark on the field side with the tight end on that side. Bolden motions to the field side; and this time a defender tracks him, drawing him out of the box and leaving six blockers for six defenders. Jones gives it to Harris before turning to fake a throw to Bolden. The Tennessee defensive linemen play it way, however; and Harris has to settle for a minimal gain.
(ed. note: We’ve talked a lot about how not having Waddle run these fakes out into the flats won’t draw defenses off of Najee as effectively. In this case, the DB obviously follows Slade, clearing out some space... but check out the inside linebacker on Bolden’s side. He hesitates one extra tick and takes a step to the outside. Had he initially attacked the hole in front of him, he would have had a good chance at blowing up the run)
Remember how I just said we saw Waddle in the backfield sometimes? Does this formation look familiar?
Waddle starts in the backfield on the boundary side with Harris lined up out wide before motioning into the backfield. There are two receivers and a tight end to the field side. Waddle gets the handoff and follows Harris, and you can see they have a variety of plays to run out of this formation. The staff clearly thought they could still call these plays with Bolden, and I’m interested to see if that continues.