Bryce Young enters the College Football Playoff with a bit more hardware. Although, the humble Heisman Trophy winner would probably trade his recent accolades in order to get his top target back.
Young’s first post-Heisman test will come without Alabama’s leading pass catcher as John Metchie III suffered a season-ending knee injury during the SEC Championship Game earlier this month. The junior receiver has been one of the Crimson Tide’s biggest offensive weapons this year, hauling in a team-high 96 receptions while ranking second in receiving yards (1,142) and receiving touchdowns (8).
That being said, you’ll be hardpressed to find many feeling sorry for an Alabama passing attack that ranks No. 7 in the nation, averaging 347.9 yards per game through the air.
The Crimson Tide’s receiving corps still features a Biletnikoff finalist in Jameson Williams, who leads the SEC in receiving yards (1,445) and receiving touchdowns (15) while ranking second in the conference with 21.25 yards per catch. It also includes several potential breakout players waiting to emerge in Metchie’s absence. Earlier this week, Nick Saban named a few while expressing his confidence in the unit moving forward.
“I think the guys are stepping up and doing a good job,” Saban said Monday. “Javon Baker’s done a good job. Traeshon Holden’s done a good job. Agiye Hall is making some good plays. And I think those guys look forward to the opportunity that they have, and they’re doing the best they can to get prepared to try to be able to help the team every way that they can. Ja’Corey [Brooks] has been playing well for us, so he’s also a guy that continues to improve.”
Of the bunch Saban mentioned, Brooks and Holden figure to be Metchie’s most likely replacements. Brooks has played in 106 offensive snaps over the past two games, filling in for an ejected Williams in the Iron Bowl before taking on the lion’s share of reps following Metchie’s injury in the SEC Championship Game. The freshman receiver has already announced himself on the big stage, pulling in the game-tying touchdown catch during Alabama’s last-minute drive against Auburn last month.
“Ja’Corey is also doing a good job of really getting technical with his routes and he’s had some experience playing obviously in big moments and big games,” Young said Tuesday. “So I think he’s being more and more comfortable on the field, and it shows.”
Holden saw the field for just five offensive snaps against Georgia but still managed to pull in two receptions for 21 yards. The 6-foot-3, 208-pound sophomore has a relationship with Young dating back to their time together during the Adidas 7-on-7 National Championship in 2019. Holden has also been Young’s favorite target of the possible replacements, recording 15 receptions for 211 yards and a touchdown over 12 games.
“Trae’s been doing a really good job of just of competing in practice,” Young said. “We’ve had a good amount of good-on-good reps and the contested catches, him competing really shows.”
Alabama’s next two options haven’t seen the field as much this season. Baker served as the Tide’s fourth receiver at times last year and was thought of as a potential breakout candidate heading into the season. However, the sophomore has taken part in just 63 offensive snaps over 11 appearances, recording seven catches for 101 yards and a touchdown.
“Bake’s been doing a great job of competing as well,” Young said. “[He’s] been running really good routes and again, competing. We’ve had some great opportunities to get some good-on-good snaps with this kind of odd schedule for a game. So you can tell Bake’s really competed, made a lot of plays.”
Hall might be the most interesting option of the bunch. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound freshman shined during Alabama’s A-Day game this spring, pulling in four receptions for 72 yards while displaying his elite body control and athleticism during multiple highlight grabs. However, he’s been unable to translate that production into the season, tallying just a pair of receptions for 20 yards over five games.
“Agiye’s stepped up as well,” Young said. “[He] ran some good deep routes, is getting more comfortable with some of those routes that take a little bit more timing and more reps.”
Young and Alabama will need all the help it can get as it goes up against a Cincinnati defense that ranks second in the nation holding opponents to 168.3 yards per game through the air. The Bearcats are led by All-American cornerbacks Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant and present arguably the best secondary the Tide has faced all season.
“It’s an all-around great group from top to bottom,” Young said. “Those corners are the guys that get a lot of talk, and it’s definitely warranted. On film, they pop off the screen. They’re really good on the back end. Their entire secondary is really good. Their linebackers are very good as well — very instinctual players — and then up front, they play super hard. They make a lot of plays at the line of scrimmage and behind it so on defense from top to bottom, looks like a great defense.
“We know we’re going to have to bring our best; work each and every day to put ourselves in the best situation to be successful. But we understand it’s going to be — it’s a big challenge for us.”
Alabama will hold one more practice Wednesday before taking the next three days off for Christmas. The team will then travel to Texas for its Cotton Bowl matchup against Cincinnati on Dec. 31 inside of AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
The winner of No. 1 Alabama (12-1) and No. 4 Cincinnati (13-0) will face the winner of the Orange Bowl matchup between No. 2 Michigan (12-1) and No. 3 Georgia (12-1) in the national championship game on Jan. 10.