TUSCALOOSA — The last time Jaylen Waddle stood inside Kyle Field in College Station, the Houston native was being heavily recruited by Texas A&M.
When he returns this Saturday, the Alabama sophomore receiver will be looking to turn heads in front of many family and friends in attendance from the visiting sideline.
“It's gonna be pretty cool, I think,” Waddle said. “I'm gonna know a lot of people in the crowd and on the other side, that makes it a little fun.”
Among those “on the other side” include Aggies sophomore safety Leon O’Neal, who played on the same Houston-based 7-on-7 all-star team as Waddle called, ironically enough, “Fast Houston.”
“That team that year, it was loaded, man,” Fast Houston owner and head coach Ro Simon Jr. said by phone Monday. “And Jaylen was my offensive captain and Leon was my defensive captain.”
The two former 7-on-7 teammates first met as opponents a year ago when Texas A&M came to Tuscaloosa.
In fact, O’Neal got the better of Waddle — then still a week away from his breakout 201 all-purpose-yard performance against Louisiana-Lafayette last season — on their first official “meeting” when he tackled the dynamic receiver for a 3-yard loss on a second-and-17 screen pass early in the second quarter after Waddle had already spun out of one tackle on the play.
“I was laughing (because) it was a tackle for loss,” Simon recalled. “Jaylen caught the screen and had an opportunity to take it up the field, but Jaylen juked and Leon just kind of squared himself up and tackled Jaylen behind the line of scrimmage, he hit him in his legs. … So that was kind of funny because Leon made him a little highlight-tape play (against Waddle) on one of his first plays (in college).”
The 6-foot-1 and 206-pound O’Neal — who only entered last year’s game after then-starting safety Donovan Wilson was ejected for targeting on the previous defensive series – is now one of the Aggies’ starting safeties, which should mean even more opportunities to square off against Waddle, the fourth member of Alabama’s talented Big 4 of starting receivers.
“They talked about (last season’s meeting) a lot, and Jaylen always says, ‘Well, wait ‘till next year,’” Simon added with a laugh.
Waddle – who finished second on the team last year with 848 receiving yards and seven touchdowns as a true freshman – hasn’t had many chances to standout so far this season despite his starting status, ranking fourth on the team with 12 catches for 197 yards and no touchdowns through five games.
Not that he’s necessarily sweating it.
“It’s just how the offense flows and how the offense goes,” Waddle said.
Meanwhile, he’s seen the three junior members of Alabama’s receiving corps shine, accounting for a combined 1,386 yards and 18 touchdowns on 86 receptions between them.
DeVonta Smith ranks second in the SEC with 537 receiving yards and is tied for fourth nationally with eight touchdowns after his record-setting 11-catch, 274-yard, five-touchdown game last Saturday against Ole Miss. It was the second time this season Smith has hauled in eight or more receptions in a game.
Jerry Jeudy opened the season with back-to-back 100-yard receiving games and has hauled in at least six receptions in every game this season to lead the SEC with 38 catches so far, while fellow junior Henry Ruggs III combined for 10 catches, 270 receiving yards and three touchdowns against South Carolina and Southern Miss.
“It’s fun,” Waddle said. “I think it’s a challenge, I think we feed off each other and make each other better. I love it.”
Meanwhile, Waddle has only caught five passes in a game once this season, turning them into a season-high 90 receiving yards against Duke. He also ranks first in the SEC averaging 17.4 yards on eight punt returns this season.
“I certainly think that Jaylen has a lot of ability, (and) we want him to be a very positive contributor,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Waddle last week. “We want him to play with great consistency in performance and we’re going to continue to work with him so that maybe he can do that a little better. But we have a lot of confidence in him in a lot of ways to do a lot of good things for us.”
Given Waddle’s natural explosiveness and uncanny ability to create his own opportunities with the ball in his hands, the expectation is it’s only a matter of time before the player nicknamed “Magic” for his mind-boggling plays in high school unleashes his own headline-making performance.
Can he do it in his return to Texas?
Like everything else, Waddle’s not letting his homecoming affect him one way or the other.
“Nah, not really,” Waddle said, adding: “I’m just out there playing, playing together, trying to do my job and trying to do it as good as the other guys do.”