Slade Bolden took on the role tailor-made for Jaylen Waddle and played it well against Tennessee.
When Alabama lost Jaylen Waddle for the season on the opening kickoff against Tennessee, it lost the SEC’s leader in receiving yards, and the only player in the league with two catches of 70 yards or more.
Alabama made no discernible play calling adjustments to compensate for his absence.
Waddle’s electric playmaking ability gave UA offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian reason to use him in a variety of ways, both to create ways to give him the ball and use him as a decoy for other offensive weapons. In Waddle’s absence, the Crimson Tide did all of those things with Slade Bolden, producing an offensive game that looked very similar to its first four as it beat Tennessee 48-17 on Saturday.
“Completely confident when Slade came into the game,” wide receiver John Metchie III said. “Slade had a great performance, he came in and did a good job like everybody else.”
Bolden had six catches for 94 yards, and did it in a way reminiscent of Waddle.
Bolden’s second catch of 30 yards — his longest gain — came on a crossing route that Waddle used frequently.
Later in the game, Alabama used backfield motion for Bolden the same way it would for Waddle. Bolden started in the backfield and Najee Harris motioned into it; after Harris set, Bolden motioned into a swing screen pattern behind the receivers on the left side, where he caught the ball after a fake handoff to Harris.
With Waddle, the concept was to occupy linebackers with as much change as possible, slowing them all of the half-step Waddle needed to run them out of the play. It turns out UA treated Bolden the same way.
“I thought he played well,” UA coach Nick Saban said of Bolden. “He had a drop there in the end zone at the end, but I thought he made some really good plays in the game.”
Alabama boasted even wide receiver usage through four games and could have abandoned that in Waddle’s absence but instead kept things the same: Metchie III and DeVonta Smith had seven catches each to Bolden’s six.
The lone outlier in UA’s receiving workload is running back Najee Harris, who matched Bolden’s six receptions. It was a new career high for single-game receptions for Harris, including last season when he set UA’s single-season record for receiving touchdowns by a running back. Most of Harris’ receptions were check down passes from Mac Jones, finding Harris as an outlet to escape Tennessee’s pass rush.
While it’s possible Harris’ workload as a pass catcher increases in Waddle’s absence, UA’s game against Tennessee isn’t the first step in that direction.
Bolden was UA’s answer to Waddle’s absence on Saturday, and likely will be in the future, but it’s not guaranteed to be that way in perpetuity. UA signed three heralded wide receiver recruits — Javon Baker, Thaiu Jones-Bell and Traeshon Holden — who have a chance at playing time.
“We need some of our young guys — this is the one thing that not having a couple of games outside the SEC where you can play some of those guys — we’re going to have to have some of those guys step up and be ready to play,” Saban said. “They haven’t really got much experience.”