If you think Alabama fans have been spoiled by the wealth of talent that has emerged at receiver over the last decade, imagine coaching that group.
Since 2008, Alabama has had five First Team All-American wideouts, two players make Freshman All-American, and one All-American TE. Additionally, another five players made All-SEC. Over that same 13-year span, Alabama produced three Biletnikoff winners and two other finalists for the nation’s best pass-catcher. Two wideouts were Heisman finalists, with Slim Reaper taking the trophy in 2020. Along the way, DeVonta Smith produced the best season by a wide receiver in the sport’s history. And, just for good measure, the NFL has drafted seven Tide pass-catchers and a TE in the first round...in the last decade.
But, while all that Sunday talent was apparent on Saturdays, its exodus over the last two seasons, where ‘Bama lost five players to the First Round, was equally apparent. The Tide’s receiving room in 2021 was high on potential, long on youth, and introduced an unknown quantity in Ohio State transfer, Jameson Williams.
What were the results? Feast or famine would be the best way to describe ‘Bama’s output in 2021.
Superstars and missed opportunities
Jameson Williams was everything that Alabama could have possibly hoped for, and more. The RS Junior grabbed 79 passes for over 1500 yards and took 15 passes to the house with his elite speed and elusiveness. Among receivers with at least 40 catches, he led the nation in YPA, getting close to 20 yards every time the ball was in his hands. Along the way, he also became the nation’s most dangerous return man, was a first-team All-American, and a Biletnikoff finalist. From bench player to first round lock, no one made more money faster or changed a game quicker than JaMo.
However, it was the other side of the field where the sausage really got made. In two fewer games than JaMo, John Metchie III had almost 20 more catches, reeling in 96 in just 13 games. He went over 1100 yards on the season, hauled in 10 scores, and had a very respectable 12 YPA — he was in the Top 20 in every national receiving category. But perhaps the best stat is that on his 25 3rd down targets, Metch pulled in 20 passes to move the chains. This is the kind of output that is bodes well to have a decade-long, effective-but-quiet career at WR2/WR3 in the NFL.
So, it was as outstanding a tandem as one could hope for on the outside. Only three schools had two or more players with 1000 yard receiving seasons, and Alabama was one of them. Likewise, only three had players with 10 or more TD catches — and Alabama is hardly Western Kentucky or Utah State. Had one or both players been healthy, the CFPCG becomes a very different sort of contest.
And then what?
That was the question that Alabama sought to answer all season. After those two, was there another weapon that could be found, hopefully in the slot or at tight end? Or, let’s be greedy, maybe both?
Slade Bolden was one of the obvious choices here. But his game was very limited for the position he was asked to play, and he never generated those YAC that you would want from the 3rd WR. He did have a decent season, pulling in 42 catches. But he just didn’t do much with them — his YPC was second-lowest on the team, behind only Brian Robinson. Nor was able to get separation in the red zone, and notched just three scores all season.
What about the ballyhooed Freshmen and Sophomores? I wish the results were a little more encouraging than what we saw. Those eight players — from Holden to Hall. JoJo to Jacorey — pulled in a total of 43 catches in 64 games played...and they dropped 17 targets along the way.
In fact, those drops was a consistent theme of Alabama’s season all year long. Alabama’s drop rate the previous three seasons was 2.4%. If you put the ball on the hands of someone like Jerry Jeudy, it was almost assuredly a catch. That was by far the best in the country. Last season cannot even be called a regression. It was falling off a damned cliff. Alabama plummeted all the way to a 9.6% drop rate. One of every 10-11 passes thrown by Bryce was being doinked off of their hands.
Across all divisions of play, that drop rate would put Alabama 243rd in the nation, by far the worst in the SEC, and fourth-worst in all of major college football.
Wasted moments, missed opportunities, and drops bring us to the tight ends, one of whom was a converted try-hard who just could not hang on to the ball; and one of them is now among the most notorious players in the history of underachievement of the Saban Era: Cameron Latu and Jahleel Billingsley, respectively
It’s hard not to root for a kid like Latu, who bounced around between positions before landing at tight end. He plays hard every down and is plainly busting it out there, despite his limited skill set. And the drops, my god, the drops. On the year, Latu wound up having very respectable numbers. He was Bama’s third-leading receiver by yards, had the team’s second-best YPA average, and was third on the Tide in TDs scored (8) — and dropped another 3. All told, he had 26 catches...and dropped 6 passes. Still, while his hands were questionable, his give-a-shit was not.
Which bring us to Jahleel Billingsley, loving referred to around these parts as Billboard — and I don’t know which one of you degenerates coined that nickname for him during a meltdown, but please take credit.
Billingsley is everything that Latu is not.
He has the physical frame and skills and speed to be a standout tight end...when he gives a shit. He does not.
He has the size to impede defenders (at least marginally) in the blocking game...when he gives a shit. He does not.
He can run crisp routes, get separation, and be a disciplined player...when he gives a shit.
He does not.
It began with his suspension early in the season for violation of team rules and his piss-poor attitude that carried throughout the year. You get the sense that he only played in contests down the stretch out of Bammer self-defense. Alabama had simply run out of guys to throw out on the field. In 2021, this supremely talented player caught just 17 passes for a shade over 200 yards...and along the way, killed a crucial drive in the CFPCG by running the wrong route; destroyed another one with a drop so bad that it looked like he was point shaving; and blew up another one by not even pretending to block.
He was a liability for the chemistry of the team, a liability in the locker room, and just as bad, he was a liability on the field — someone who doesn’t care does far more damage than being on the bench.
Billboard won’t be missed: He and Texas deserve one another.
Wide receiver was always going to be a thorny proposition in 2021. With so many losses, a regression was bound to happen. WR1 and WR2 definitely lived up to their billing, however. You could hardly ask for a better tandem and better output. Nor could you ask for much more out of Cameron Latu, pressed into a starting role after Billingsley went AWOL on his teammates for the entire season. I suppose that Slade Bolden did the best he could do given his limited physical skill set and almost-glacial speed in the slot (seriously, how do you have a slow, white slot in the Year of Our Bear 2021?!)
But two very good players, and two limited players giving their best, are not how you create an elite offense that has to pass.
No, the issue this season were WR4-WR8 and TE1; those were the problem. There were so many opportunities to be had this year to seize playing time. JoJo Earle never emerged as the player that we thought he could be. Players like Traeshon Holden and Billboard seemed to spend more time grumbling on social media about getting targets and riding the pine. Javon Baker never seemed to be able to put it all together to get on the field. Agiye Hall just flat-out disappeared after a stellar Spring Game. Ja’Corey Brooks had one-step-forward, one-step-back games practically every time he had the opportunity to play, and down the line.
There is talent there. I’m not discounting that or negging on any of these guys (except Billingsley). And, we must take to heart that what we saw with that 2017-2018 WR class may never happen again: four legitimate NFL franchise wide receivers, a legitimate NFL starting TE, and all of them ready to play when they hit campus.
We cannot hold up Smitty or Waddle as the standard for guys like Baker and Brooks. No, we must hold them to the standard at which they can play. And even by that metric, they have to know they missed some opportunities through no one’s fault but their own.
They’re young, though. And some players have to grow into their greatness. There are no more excuses to be had this season, however. It’s now or never, and the expectations are clear. Next man up. It’s your turn.
Final Grade: B
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