Two years in a row, Nick Saban believes Alabama has lost its most popular player to a mid-season, season-ending.
And in both cases, Saban thinks his star players may have tried to make a game that was not there.
Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle broke his ankle in Saturday’s game in Tennessee as he returned to the opening park, nearly a year after quarterback Tua Tagovailoa twisted and broke his hip while crawling and trying to throw somewhere in Mississippi State.
Saban briefly claimed the point that Waddle returned a kick that players would normally be taught down to get a touchback, in his half-question Saturday with CBS.
“You should not bring a ball out when you are so deep in the end zone, but he is a great player so you have to let him use his judgment,”
The Alabama coach elaborated on the idea Thursday night during his weekly radio program as part of a larger response about teaching players’ instincts.
“I think big players have big instincts and they make the right decisions about what is the best opportunity to play and we give our players the leeway to do that,” Saban said. “But sometimes a player can be so eager to make a game that they can actually try to make a piece when there is no game there. And that can hurt them.
“The quarterback can encrypt when the receiver fell down and there really is no game to make, and maybe it’s better to throw the ball away than take a big hit. Bringing the ball out four or five yards deep out of the end zone when [kicker] has a 5.0[-second] hang time on it.
“I mean, your chances of playing in that situation are not great. And when it’s a middle ground and you’re bouncing it, it’s not good. So you want to give players room to play, which we do. But we also want them to make good choices and decisions about what creates the opportunity for this? You get a much better opportunity to make a good game under certain circumstances.
“Now everyone has to perform and perform their job, and if we would have performed and done our job better on the first game as a kickoff return, no one might get hurt. So that’s the unfortunate thing.”
Waddle’s ankle was broken as he tried to dodge a volunteer tackle. He underwent surgery after the match and is expected to miss the rest of the season. Saban later compared the loss of Waddle to a basketball team that lost Allen Iverson.
“Jaylen Waddle is a phenomenal player, a phenomenal competitor,” Saban continued Thursday night. “He’s one of those guys, it’s Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan. They can make plays when no one else can make the same play. And he’s one of those guys.
“One thing that he does, or that he gave us, is that he can take the top of a defense. We put him in many positions to get him isolated on security. It’s hard covers for a security. We will no doubt miss it. ”
Saban then called Waddle “probably the most popular player on the team” and noted that Tagovailoa was the same last season.
“I actually pray for him, I must admit,” Saban said.
Waddle’s operation was described as successful earlier in the week by Saban, and it is not expected to affect his position as the NFL draft of the first round this spring.
“This will not have a long-term impact on his career,” Saban said Thursday. “He has created enormous value for himself. He’s going to have a great career as a football player. ”
Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.