It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a scrappier dog, or a cooler customer, than Alabama sophomore quarterback Bryce Young.
We’ve seen the tastemakers at ESPN and others try to manufacture narratives about the best player in the country before, to Alabama’s detriment. But sometimes, there is such an overwhelming consensus as to the best offensive player in the country, that even naysayers can’t ignore it.
Last year, it was Smitty, the skinny kid from Louisiana who had such a generational season on the outside, that even a wide receiver outshined his quarterback contemporaries.
This season, despite the other generational season being enjoyed by his teammate, Will Anderson Jr., the performance deemed to be “the most outstanding” belonged to Alabama’s Bryce Young.
In the end, despite some deserved nods and unforgivable snubs on that Heisman podium, Young was the right decision.
But his story is not one of stats — as good as they were. Rather, it is one of growth, of personal improvement, and of making those around him better, those intangibles that exemplify what it means to be the “most outstanding player.”
Bryce Young, just a true sophomore, had a season that is hard to do justice to when you realize exactly what he had to work with, and what he would face this season on the youngest team that Nick Saban has ever fielded.
Bryce entered 2021 with just 22 passing attempts in his career — all in mop-up duty. The first meaningful snaps he played came in his first start, on the road. He did so with a Tide offense returning just 11% of its offensive production and just 25% of its offensive coaching staff (including the loss of his position coach and the nation’s best offensive coordinator). Even the scant returning production he had at his disposal came in the form of John Metchie III, Slade Bolden, Jase McClellan, Jahleel Billingsley, Cameron Latu, and Brian Robinson Jr., all of whom were at least secondary options last season. Perfectly fine players in their own right, to be sure. However, no one is going to confuse them Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, or Najee Harris. Yet, those were to be the workhorses for an Alabama offense that had little reason to eventually be as good as it was.
Bryce Young was that reason why.
The 2021 Crimson Tide is an offense that has to pass, and has to do so with a limited running game behind Young. It is an offense that lives and dies on the right arm of the 19-year-old, but is also one that has to do so with a painfully-thin, often-injured receiving corps: At various points throughout the season, and for various reasons, Alabama has lost John Metchie, JoJo Earle, Jameson Williams, Slade Bolden, Jahleel Billingsley, Cameron Latu, Agiye Hall, and Xavier Williams.
Despite that, Bryce found a way to take take depth pieces and make them an integral part of the offense; to help those players embody the Tide’s “next man up” ethos.
Yes, Metch and JaMo are both 1100+ yard receivers who reeled in 23 of BY’s touchdowns passes. But Bryce is not the product of his receivers. He has been an amazing distributor of the ball all year. Young completed passes to 18 Alabama receivers — over half of which went to depth chart guys like Baker and Holden; Brooks and Bolden. Players that you needed a scorecard to identity in September would eventually become the recipients of another 20 touchdowns. Nine players on the Crimson Tide caught at least 10 passes, and seven players had at least 200 yards receiving.
Superstars were developed on the outside this season, to be sure, but they did not enter the 2021 season born as such. And it is perhaps the unwavering faith Young showed in the entire group, his willingness to trust their abilities, coupled with the lack of a returning dominant WR1, that makes him such a remarkable player...and that made those around him better.
They, in turn, made Bryce better as well.
It is an offense that has to throw despite a constant reshuffle along the line, with three centers handling snaps in just 13 games. In fact, no single offensive line grouping has made more than four consecutive starts at any point in the season.
But, throw he must. And throw he has. And through it all, Bryce encouraged and praised the same line that let him down time and time again throughout the year. And, it is perhaps the unwavering faith in and encouragement of a much-abused line helped them find the fortitude to step up against in their biggest challenge of the season. He made them want to play harder when it mattered the most, and they did.
It would be a revisionist hagiography of St. Bryce to say that Young’s season of outstanding play was apparent from the start. That was not always the case. He has had his yips on the road. He has lacked faith in his arm or judgment at times. He has not trusted his feet at other times. And he did not command the huddle from Day One. It is fair to say that when Alabama’s offense bogged down, and Bryce struggled, that Alabama ran plays; Alabama did not run an offense.
So, all of these things he would have to learn, and, as was the case with so many players on the 2021 Crimson Tide, he would have to grow into his role.
Bryce had to develop his deep ball touch, a skill which only matured later in the season. He had to learn to trust his feet to make a play, even though his preternatural talent is field awareness and eyes ever-watchful downfield. He had to learn that not every sack is the fault of an unsteady offensive line — and that his split-second indecision was to blame for as many incompletions as those drops were; that his split-second hesitancy led to as many sacks as the ones the line allowed through. He had to grow accustomed to the speed of the game, and learn how to communicate on the road. He had to learn rapport with the entire offense, with a new coaching staff, and he had to accept that coaching.
Above all, he has had to become the leader this team has needed, the leader that Nick Saban has pleaded for, since Labor Day.
For such a subdued, soft-spoken guy, outwardly it did not always seem that he was that fiery presence Alabama needed. But, it turns out that earning your respect on the field — and a vocal, steadfast confidence in the abilities of others — can inspire your teammates every bit as much as an incendiary pregame hype speech.
It all began to coalesce in the final 1:27 of the regular season, when that ephemeral thing voters call “a Heisman moment” was presented to him, in the one venue where Alabama has struggled most for over three decades — Jordan-Hare Stadium. It was a matter of Bryce seizing the opportunity before him, and Young did so with as good of a come-from-behind, two-minute drive and victory as you will find in the college game.
Under constant pressure all night, on the final drive in regulation, Young channeled his reservoir of shiftiness; he took no sacks; he extended plays; he converted 3rd down after 3rd down; he got rid of the ball; he converted on two monstrous 4th downs; he went back to a little-known Freshman just two plays after a badly ran route and then gave that same kid the chance to be a hero. His faith in Ja’Corey Brooks, in the end, sent the game to overtime and saved Alabama’s season. In retrospect, his faith in Ja’Corey Brooks on the crucial touchdown toss was emblematic of Young’s play all season.
He is the ultimate team player, and it makes those around him better.
For an encore to the season-saving Iron Bowl, Bryce would finally put all of the lessons and growing pains of 2021 together, and show that Alabama was Alabama again: The trust he had in secondary players, the touch on the deep pass, quick release, smart decision-making, mobility and extending plays, field awareness, accuracy, and critical plays with his feet when Alabama simply needed the yards were all on display.
On December 4, 2021, Bryce Young secured Alabama’s fourth Heisman Trophy, and its first for a quarterback, as he sliced and diced the vaunted No. 1 Georgia defense into bloody ribbons, setting a new SEC Championship Game record: 26/44, 421, 3 TDs, with another rushing score. And, perhaps more importantly, with all of those tools on display, it led to zero sacks on the night, several improvised plays on third down, and 40 of the most critical rushing yards in recent Alabama football memory.
Bryce didn’t have the nation’s best completion percentage; Will Rogers did — Bryce was 6th.
Bryce didn’t have the nation’s fewest interceptions among full-time starters; Grayson McCall did — Bryce was 2nd (he did have the nation’s best TD:INT ratio and interception rate though).
Bryce didn’t have the nation’s most attempts, its most completions, its most touchdowns, or its most yards; Bailey Zappe, CJ Stround, and Will Rogers vied for those honors — though Bryce was in the Top 15 in every one.
Bryce didn’t have the highest QB efficiency rating; Grayson McCall did.
Bryce wasn’t tops in the SEC in QBR; Herndon Hooker was.
Bryce didn’t even have the SEC’s best yards per attempt; Stetson Bennett did.
But what Bryce did have in 2021 is that which cannot be quantified. It. And it made him the very best at Alabama’s biggest moments down the stretch. It made this Alabama team something that seemed so very improbable just a few weeks ago: A team that was improved by his mere presence on the field when it mattered the most.
It made his teammates better. It made them believe. It made them champions.
Those intangibles, alongside his gaudy production, exemplified what it means to be the game’s “most outstanding player.” Bryce Young’s journey of growth along was as outstanding to watch as his play was.
And for an encore, college football has to face him again in 2022 — now a veteran leader in full command of his arsenal of weapons, on a deeper, healthier, and more experienced Alabama Crimson Tide team.
Good luck with that.
Congratulations to Bryce Young, the 2021 Heisman Memorial Trophy Winner.
This is award is given to the nation’s most outstanding player, which Young has earned. But it is fair to say that this is as much a team-wide award recognizing their shared journey as much as it is anything; a testament to what can happen when players trust in one another and that trust is rewarded.
And Bryce Young would be the first to say so: He’s just built that way. That’s what it is about.