Since Julio Jones stepped foot on campus in 2008, Alabama has been the premiere spot for top flight-wide receivers. In the 12 years since that game-changing recruit from Foley arrived, the Crimson Tide has fielded four-first team All-Americans, two Biletnikoff winners, three Freshman All-Americans, a 3rd place Heisman finalist, and six other 2nd- and 3rd-team All-Americans.
But for every clear No. 1, like Julio Jones or Amari Cooper, there are other players on the field that make the offense hum, that move the chains, that stress the secondary, that seal the edges for the backs, that create space on screens, that play cat-and-mouse with defensive coordinators. And there has been a ridiculous wealth of talent that never got the headlines that the future NFL stars received.
These are our picks.
Marquis Maze, Wide Receiver
The other wide receiver of the 2008 NSD class was not one heavily regarded by many teams. The 5’10” speedster from Tarrant was just a three-star prospect and not even a top ten player in the state, much less at his position. His only offer at the time of his commitment came from Nick Saban.
But, what Maze did bring to the table was strong hands, a competitive fire, and great open-field speed that made him a threat with the ball in his hands. Though he was not a polished product, Maze was ideal for a ball-control offense, particularly working underneath as linebackers keyed on Alabama’s potent running game.
Maze notched seven starts as a true freshman in 2008, and played in 13 of 14 games. By his Sophomore season, he was firmly entrenched as a starter on the two-deep, and would be a starter the next three seasons (as well as return punts and kicks). Maze eventually earned a second-team All-SEC nod in 2011, his senior season — an award that I still believe was more a lifetime appreciation honor. Marquis finished his time at the Capstone with 136 catches for 1844 yards (13.6 YPC) and found the endzone 8 times. He added two more scores in the return game.
We may not remember much of his play from a decade ago. But you can see why Maze was such a prized early recruit for Nick Saban: fast, versatile, selfless, and — despite being just 180-pounds after hitting up Waffle House — tough as nails: No. 4 was as quick to lower his head and punish a defender as he was to step out of bounds.
Maze went undrafted, but was signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers as a free agent in 2012. He later played Arena League ball. But, his college career was as productive as you could ever wish: Maze is 7th in all-time catches at Alabama, 11th in yards, and he did it all in just 150 touches from scrimmage. Along the way, he won two SEC titles (2009, 2012) and two BCS National Titles (2010, 2012).
Touch that thing, four
Kevin Norwood, Wide Receiver
The Tiger Killer, Kevin Norwood did more to deflate Tyrann Matthieu’s aura of invincibility than any other player in the 2011 season. But, he was more than just the Tormentor of Tigers, Kevin Norwood was the clutch man and undisputed WR1 in the years following Julio Jones.
Norwood was a low four-star emerging from his lightweight D’Iberville program. That, and his measurables, are likely the reason he got no greater traction. On paper, Kevin Norwood was decent — decent size at 6’2”, decent frame at 193, good speed at 4.48, decent route runner, decent blocker.
But one thing that doesn’t show up on paper is how scrappy Norwood was. He was a fighter — clawing off the line, battling for contested passes, hand-chucking all the way down the field. Norwood turned routine coverage plays into 50-50 balls, and he turned those 50-50 ball into completions. For a ball control offense with a young quarterback seeking to expand the playbook and grow his confidence, those skills made him the perfect fit.
He may not have been the most decorated player out of those early-aughts Tide teams, but I will go to my grave maintaining that Kevin Norwood’s presence on the roster was the chief reason for AJ McCarron’s confidence and development early in his career. DeAndrew White had the better career numbers, but it seemed like every one of Norwood’s 81 receptions were huge. He finished his career with 1,275 yards and 12 touchdowns.
ArDarius Stewart, Wide Receiver
Was there any player who had a quieter All-Capstone era than ArDarius Stewart? Here’s the tale of the tape, and you probably weren’t aware that he was this productive:
- 12 TDs (14th in UA history)
- 129 catches (9th)
- 1713 Yards (14th)
Stewart came to Alabama as a well-regarded jack-of-all-trades, having played QB, WR, and RB at Fultondale. He was the true definition of the ole’ recruiting category “ATHLETE”, a Top 100 player that was probably an Alabama lock the day he was born: he only had two firm offers at the time he committed — ‘Bama and the ‘Barn
His first year on campus, Stewart redshirted to bulk up — he was never particularly large, but he did finish at Alabama a muscular, compact 5’11” 200 pounds. When Stewart finally got to see the field in 2014, he played in nearly every game, eventually earning two starts down the stretch. But, it was 2015 where Stewart would really start to shine, starting all 15 games for the National Title Tide, hauling in 4 touchdowns on 63 catches and 700 yards. His final season would see him mature as a player, adding an element of verticality that had been missing. Even in ‘Bama’s run-heavy scheme, he grabbed 7 touchdowns and had 864 yards in receptions.
All of those things we say about Norwood — McCarron apply to ArDarius Stewart and Jake Coker. In Jake’s season as a starter, it was incumbent to find a player that he clicked with, that he trusted. That player would be Stewart. And, like Norwood, Stewart was a scrapper with the ball in the air. He was utterly unafraid of going over the middle or of taking contact. That faith in Stewart, and Stewart’s willingness to leap and fight for balls, led to the defining career moment for both players in the 2015 Third Saturday matchup.
ArDarius forfeited his senior season and entered the NFL Draft. He has played for three NFL franchises, and is presently WR2 for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, where he added more hardware with a 2019 CFL Grey Cup title.
Honorable Mention: Devonta Smith
Man, at some point we’re going to recognize just how good Devonta really is. Entering the 2020 season, Smith is 6th in all-time yards (2103), 10th in all-time catches (118), 4th in all-time touchdown receptions (23), 2nd in yard-per-catch average (17.9), and was integral to one of the most iconic moments in college football history.
Smith was finally named first-team All-SEC last year, and was the recipient of a handful of second- and third-team All-American selections (for the record, I did put him on the first team on my ballot), but Devonta is much, much better than he is ever given credit for.
He plays bigger than his 175 pounds indicate.
He plays faster than his 4.49.
And this is his year to shine.
Okay, here are our selections. Who did I forget? Who would you add? Was there a glaring error or omission? Chime in below.