Two years in a row, Nick Saban believes, Alabama has lost its most popular player to a midseason, season-ending injury.
And in each case, Saban thinks his star players might have been trying to make a play that was not there.
Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle fractured his ankle in Saturday’s game at Tennessee while returning the opening kickoff, almost a year after quarterback Tua Tagovailoa dislocated and fractured his hip while scrambling and trying to make a throw at Mississippi State.
Saban, in his halftime interview Saturday with CBS, briefly raised the point that Waddle was returning a kick that normally players would be taught to down for a touchback.
“You’re not supposed to bring a ball out when you’re that deep in the end zone, but he’s a great player, so you got to let him use his judgment,” Saban said.
The Alabama coach elaborated on the thought Thursday night during his weekly radio show as part of a larger answer about teaching players instincts.
“I think great players have great instincts and they make the right decisions as to what’s the best opportunity to make a play, and we give our players the latitude to do that,” Saban said. “But then sometimes a player can be so anxious to make a play that they can actually try to make a play when there’s not a play there. And that can put them in harm’s way.
“Quarterback can scramble when the receiver fell down and there’s really no play to make, and maybe you’d be better off throwing the ball away, rather than taking a big hit. Bringing the ball out four or five yards deep out of the end zone when the [kicker] has a 5.0[-second] hang time on it.
“I mean, your chances of making a play in that situation are not great. And when it’s a middle return and you bounce it, that’s not good. So you want to give players latitude to make plays, which we do. But we also want them to make good choices and decisions about what creates the opportunity for this? You’re going to have a much better opportunity to make a good play in certain circumstances.
“Now, everybody has got to execute and do their job, and if we would have executed and done our job better on that first play as a kickoff return unit, maybe nobody gets hurt. So that’s the unfortunate thing.”
Waddle’s ankle was fractured as he tried to elude a Volunteers tackler. He underwent surgery after the game and is expected to miss the rest of the season. Saban later compared the loss of Waddle to a basketball team losing Allen Iverson.
“Jaylen Waddle is a phenomenal player, a phenomenal competitor,” Saban continued Thursday evening. “He’s one of those guys that’s Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan. They can make plays when nobody else can make that same play. And he’s one of those kind of guys.
“One thing that he does, or he gave us, is he can take the top off of a defense. We put him a lot of positions to get him isolated on the safeties. That’s tough covering for a safety. We’re going to miss that, no doubt.”
Saban then called Waddle “probably the most popular player on the team,” noting Tagovailoa was the same last season.
“I actually pray for him, I have to admit,” Saban said.
“This is not going to have a long-term impact on his career,” Saban said Thursday. “He’s created tremendous value for himself. He’s going to have a great career down the road as a football player.”
Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.