TUSCALOOSA — Nicknamed “Magic” during his high school days, what Jaylen Waddle does on the football field usually draws more oohs and ahhs than criticism.
Except from his mother.
After Alabama’s sophomore receiver/punt returner received the customary hugs from family outside the Kyle Field fences following Saturday’s 47-28 win at Texas A&M, Iesha Redmon made sure to remind her only son about the one caveat to his first breakout game of the season, when he led the Crimson Tide with 176 all-purpose yards and added his first touchdown of the season.
“You got caught by the kicker, twice,” Redmon told Waddle.
“I know, mom,” he responded sheepishly.
Two days later, Waddle was able to laugh about the exchange, even if he knew his mother likely wasn’t really joking.
“She was definitely serious,” Waddle said Monday. “But it was all good. My mom's my biggest critic, so it was (good) coming from her.”
More than 35 of Waddle’s close family and friends — including his mother, three older sisters and high school coach — made the 90-minute drive from Houston to watch the Episcopal High standout’s return to his home state Saturday.
It was a memorable homecoming for Waddle, who opened the Crimson Tide’s scoring with a first-quarter 31-yard catch-and-run effort for his first touchdown as part of his season-high 176 all-purpose-yard performance against the Aggies.
“I was excited,” Redmon said. “It was good to see him do that, but that comes. Just to see the smiles that (photographers) catch of him, that lets me know he’s having fun. That means more to me. Whether he gets in the end zone or not, as long as he keeps that smile, it wouldn’t matter to me.”
And there was plenty for Waddle to smile about Saturday, especially once the second-year receiver crossed the goal line to tie the game at 7-7 with 2:41 left in the opening quarter. It was Waddle’s first score of the year after ranking third on the team with seven receiving touchdowns last season.
"Coach (Nick) Saban always says to have fun when you're out there, so (I was) just out there having fun, especially being back in my home state,” Waddle said Monday.
Saturday’s showing also earned Waddle his first Southeastern Conference special teams player of the week honor Monday after registering a career-high 128 punt return yards Saturday, which ranked third-most in a single game in Alabama history, behind only former Tide defensive back/returner — and current graduate assistant — Javier Arenas.
"It was exciting,” Waddle said. “I knew going into the game you were going to have an opportunity because the punter had a big leg."
Each of Waddle’s four punt returns of 15, 43, 28 and 42 yards provided his offense favorable field position, with the final three ending inside Texas A&M territory and helped set up four of Alabama’s five offensive touchdowns Saturday.
That included returning a second-quarter punt from Aggies senior Braden Mann 43 yards — before Mann helped force Waddle out of bounds — to the A&M 19-yard line with 6:17 left in the second quarter. Three plays later, the Crimson Tide was leading 24-10 after junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa connected with running back Najee Harris for a 16-yard score with 5½ minutes left before halftime.
“As a quarterback, I can’t complain about the fielding we got — (Waddle) did a great job giving us great field position,” Tagovailoa said Monday. “It makes it so much easier for us, and for the play-caller, I think it makes it a lot easier, too. (Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s) calls are limited now, but it’s all about us going out there and executing.”
Waddle has already made great strides as a punt returner in his second season.
Through six games, Waddle currently leads the nation with 267 punt return yards on 12 returns this season, and is averaging an FBS-best 22.25 yards per return — more than half a yard better than Oregon return man Jevon Holland (21.67). Waddle’s 44.5 average punt return yards per game is 8 yards better than Missouri’s Richaud Floyd (36.4) and 11.2 yards better than Auburn’s Christian Tutt (33.3).
When asked if he expects teams to continue to punt his way given his return prowess, Waddle was determined to make an impact, no matter what the opposition did.
"I hope so,” Waddle said. “But every team has a game plan, so if that's in their gameplan, we've got to adjust and still make it happen."