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Regardless of an injury, Jaylen Waddle has pushed Alabama back into CFP

Jaylen Waddle at Iron Bowl for Alabama on crutches
Mandatory Credit: Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser via USA TODAY Sports

He is the most entertaining and explosive player on the field, but his greatest work in returning the University of Alabama back to the College Football Playoff has come off the field.

A matchup against Tennessee in week five of its season was a bittersweet moment for Alabama fans.

RELATED: Can Alabama’s 2017 freshmen class prove Alex Leatherwood right and be the ‘greatest of all-time?’

Some people directed the blame at Nick Saban for having Jaylen Waddle on kickoff return; nevertheless, these are also the same ones that rejoiced when Waddle broke a huge play for a touchdown. It is the coach’s fault for wanting to play his best players?

Jaylen Waddle is tackled by a member of Tennessee

Alabama wide receiver, Jaylen Waddle (No. 17) tackled and injured on opening kickoff versus Tennessee/ Photo comes via Katie McMekin of Knoxville News Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

Saban has been fighting this thought, especially after what happened to Tua Tagovailoa in 2019.

A right ankle injury caused the Crimson Tide to lose Waddle for the remainder of the regular season. The issue forced DeVonta Smith to step up and like his former teammate, Henry Ruggs III, the senior struggled to not blame himself for the mishap.

No matter how many times the family of Rod Scott tells Ruggs it was not his fault, the Montgomery (Ala.) native will always carry a feeling of guilt in the death of his best friend.

For the receiver nicknamed “The Slim Reaper,” Smith told reporters that he was responsible for telling Waddle to stay in the end zone on the opening kickoff against the Volunteers. But … how does one say “No” to a gifted player that creates so much good fortune, especially when he touches the ball? Smith did not have the heart to keep Waddle back and honestly, one cannot blame him. Eddie Jackson probably wanted to tell Minkah Fitzpatrick to take a knee in the end zone in 2016 versus Arkansas after recording an interception, but Jackson felt like Fitzpatrick could score on the play.

Jaylen Waddle at Iron Bowl for Alabama on crutches

Nov 28, 2020; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Alabama injured wide receiver Jaylen Waddle (17) at Bryant-Denny Stadium before the Iron Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser via USA TODAY Sports

In knowing Waddle’s speed, Smith felt the same way.

RELATED: Alabama has had great success in CFP semifinal games at AT&T Stadium

DeVonta Smith with a touchdown catch over Derek Stingley of LSU

Dec 5, 2020; Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver DeVonta Smith (6) makes a one handed touchdown catch over LSU Tigers cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. (24) during the second quarter at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The absence of the native Texan through six games prompted Smith to take over. He emerged from being “2nd and 26” to dismantling every defensive secondary in college football.

Whether it he was doubled or triple covered in some instances, the Louisiana native looked at Mac Jones and said ‘get me the ball.’ He recorded five 100-yard performances with Waddle out, including a pair of 200-yard outings against Mississippi State (203) and LSU (231).

His success in both matchups and the Tide’s meeting with Auburn had Waddle feeling sorry for defenses in the SEC. Smith saved his finest moment for the SEC title game, where he collected a game-record and school-record for receptions (15) and totaled 184 yards receiving with two touchdowns.

DeVonta Smith (No. 6) of Alabama with a nice catch versus Florida in SEC Championship Game

Dec 19, 2020; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver DeVonta Smith (6) catches a pass against Florida Gators defensive back Donovan Stiner (13) during the first quarter in the SEC Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

He went to assistant coaches Steve Sarkisian (offensive coordinator) and Holman Wiggins (wide receivers’ coach) and promised both he can handle more responsibilities on offense.

Although he came in the 2017 class as the underrated receiver, Smith has blossomed into being the best wide out to play at Alabama.

He has accomplished many awards thus far and is a finalist for the Heisman Memorial Trophy.

For him, he credits God for the opportunity and he also looks at Waddle as a major inspiration.

DeVonta Smith and John Metchie celebrate Smith's TD versus Ole Miss

Oct 10, 2020; Oxford, MX, USA; Alabama receivers Jaylen Waddle (17), DeVonta Smith (6) and John Metchie III (8) celebrate during the game against Mississippi at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kent Gidley via USA TODAY Sports

RELATED: Nick Saban has an edge over Paul “Bear” Bryant — at least when it comes to Notre Dame

“When he went down, he just made me want to set the role to do more, just feeling that it’s a big player that we lost, and I just wanted to do more for the team, do whatever I can for the team,” Smith said of Waddle on Tuesday. “He’s helped me a lot, just with the things that he sees when he’s at the game. He talks to me about things that he see. He’s still on the sideline helping us with the offensive things like that, and just being here in the film room, just on the things that he sees. So he helps me and the other players a lot.”

He is younger than the 2017 class, but Waddle builds on the character athlete that Saban loves.

Before his injury, the junior had 25 catches for 557 yards with four scores. He averaged 23 yards per catch.

Jaylen Waddle runs for a touchdown versus Georgia

Oct 17, 2020; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle (17) catches a pass after Georgia defensive back Tyson Campbell (3) fell. Waddle turned the catch into a 90 yard touchdown during the second half of Alabama’s 41-24 win over Georgia at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby Jr/The Tuscaloosa News via USA TODAY Sports

Waddle has been strong in his rehab and has been out of his walking boot for a while.

The 5-foot-10, 182-pounder wants to return to action, but it will be based on if the medical staff feels like he is ready. Regardless of what happens, having him on the sideline has sparked the team to be back in the CFP. Should he not be able to play, Alabama is prepared to win a national championship for him and Landon Dickerson.

DeVonta Smith reacts after scoring a TD for Alabama vas. Florida in 2020 SEC Championship

Dec 19, 2020; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver DeVonta Smith (6) reacts after scoring a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Florida Gators in the SEC Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Waddle is one of the glue guys, and it was a glue guy that positioned Smith for a chance to win the Heisman.

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Stephen M. Smith is the managing editor and senior writer for Touchdown Alabama Magazine.  You can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @CoachingMSmith

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