Bama’s Waddle back practicing, status for title game unclear

Gary Cosby Jr/The Tuscaloosa News via USA TODAY Sports
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Alabama star receiver Jaylen Waddle has returned to practice. Now the question is will he be able to play in the title game Monday night against Ohio State?

Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian says Waddle practiced on Tuesday, but he deferred questions on his status to coach Nick Saban, who did not address the media on Wednesday.

“We’ll see where it goes from here,” Sarkisian said. “Clearly we’ve got about a week or so until the game.”

Waddle hasn’t played since breaking his right ankle while returning the opening kickoff against Tennessee on Oct. 4. One of the nation’s most dangerous return men, he had surgery after the game.

In his absence, DeVonta Smith went on to put up big enough numbers to win the Heisman Trophy on Tuesday. That would put the onus on the Buckeyes to defend that formidable pair.

“I think you absolutely have to prepare as if he’s going to play,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said. “He’s an extraordinary athlete, extraordinary receiver.”

Waddle had 557 yards and four touchdowns in the Tide’s first four games, while opponents mostly kicked away from him.

Waddle has made three of the program’s five longest scoring catches. His career average of 19.1 yards per catch ranks second among Tide players with at least 100 receptions. He also has returned two punts and a kick for touchdowns in his career.

“I think he’s getting back into it,” Smith said. “Of course he’s going to take some time just for him to get back comfortable with everything, but he looks good to me.”

Quarterback Mac Jones agreed. Neither player offered an opinion on whether Waddle would play.

“It’d be really cool,” Jones said. “Jaylen has worked really hard to get back on the field and I know he wants nothing more than to play, but I think they’re just going to make that decision downstairs.

“But it’s his choice, and I feel like in watching him, he looks really good out there. So we’ll see what happens.”

`GOOD DAY’ FOR BUCKEYES

A day after a report raised the possibility of the College Football Playoff championship being delayed because of COVID-19 issues at Ohio State, Buckeyes athletic director Gene Smith told The Associated Press he anticipated the game will go on as scheduled.

“In the COVID world it’s day-by-day,” Smith said Wednesday. “Today was a good day.”

AL.com first reported Tuesday that Ohio State had reached out to CFP officials with concerns about player availability when the Buckeyes face No. 1 Alabama on Monday night in Miami Gardens, Florida. A person with knowledge of the situation confirmed those discussions to the AP, but Smith and CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock both released statements saying there was no change to the schedule.

Smith declined to provide any details about what virus-related problems Ohio State might be facing, but he did say the team practiced Wednesday.

“We’re in good shape. Ready to roll,” Smith said.

Ohio State President Kristina M. Johnson posted photos on Twitter showing her visiting with coach Ryan Day and the team in the school’s indoor practice facility.

“I can’t wait to join Buckeyes around the world on Jan. 11 in cheering on this very special team,” Johnson wrote.

WEST COAST EXPORTS

The West Coast will be well represented in the national championship game among the players, if not the football programs themselves.

Alabama All-America tailback Najee Harris, Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave and Buckeyes All-America guard Wyatt Davis are all from California.

Harris, for one, misses the California sunshine, but he has no regrets about his trading the West Coast for the Southern humidity – and football.

“They say a lot of West Coast guys can’t play in I guess conferences like this, the SEC,” said Harris, who was fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. “So I wanted to like kill that hype, I guess, in a way and show that we can play, that West Coast people can play.

“We have a lot more guys from the West Coast playing in the SEC than before, so it’s good to see a lot of guys travel across.”

MORE RESPECT FOR FIELDS

Coombs, who has been coaching football for nearly three decades, says Ohio State’s Justin Fields is among the best quarterbacks ever.

Fields, the second-year Buckeyes starter and likely first-round NFL draft pick, added to his resume on Wednesday when he was named the winner of the 2020 Chicago Tribune Silver Football award as the best player in the Big Ten.

“He’s got command of the offense, he understands where we want to distribute the ball,” said Coombs, who was an assistant with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans last season after a five-year stint on Urban Meyer‘s staff at Ohio State. “He’s one of the best quarterbacks I’ve ever seen and been around, and we’ve been around some really good ones here. He’s truly gifted.”

BATTLE IN THE TRENCHES

Ohio State defensive tackle Haskell Garrett said he’s looking forward to facing the Tide’s offensive front, which just won the 2020 Joe Moore Award this week as the nation’s best O-line.

“It will be won in the trenches, no doubt,” said Garrett, who recovered from a gunshot wound to the face in August to become one of the leaders of the Buckeyes’ defense.

“Games like this will be won up front,” he said. “If you can’t move offensive and defensive lines, then you have no chance at winning. Offensive and defensive linemen are unsung heroes. We might not get the glamour and the flash, but it’s won up front and the better front is going to win this game.”

Air Force football sanctioned for recruiting violations

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AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — The Air Force football program received two years of probation from the NCAA and had its squad size reduced by 10 for four years as part of its sanctions for recruiting violations.

The penalties were announced Thursday after Air Force and four individuals reached an agreement with NCAA enforcement staff on recruiting violations. A fifth individual in the case has contested their role and will be heard by the committee on infractions.

The sanctions also include a fine and a reduction of 46 total official visits for the football program in the 2022-23 and `23-24 academic years. In addition, there’s a prohibition on unofficial visits in football from Sept. 1 through Oct. 12, 2022, and a reduced number of evaluation days this fall.

Air Force has around 115 players on its varsity roster, plus a JV team that all count as NCAA athletes and its roster size.

“The (committee) appreciates the parties’ efforts in working collaboratively together to reach agreement on the violations, levels, classifications, and significant and meaningful penalties,” Gary Miller, the chief hearing officer for the panel and president at Akron, said in a statement. “The panel also recognizes that Air Force has gone above and beyond in its overall approach to this case.”

In a joint statement, Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark and director of athletics Nathan Pine said: “The U.S. Air Force Academy is pleased that our case has progressed to the point of the NCAA accepting our negotiated resolution. We will continue working with the NCAA on this ongoing self-reported case from the COVID dead period, as it’s our responsibility to ensure integrity of the institution, athletics department, cadet-athletes and staff.”

The Falcons are off to a 3-1 start and host Navy on Saturday to begin the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy competition. The trophy is presented to the service academy with the best record in the round-robin format.

Florida shakes up secondary after dismal game at Tennessee

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Billy Napier is shaking up his secondary after the Gators allowed 349 yards passing – including 247 of those on eight plays – in a loss at Tennessee.

Safety Trey Dean, a fifth-year senior who has started 32 games and played in 54, is out with what Florida is calling a “lower leg injury.” But no one would be surprised if Napier was quietly benching Dean after he made two mental errors against the Volunteers that resulted in 70- and 45-yard gains and set up touchdowns.

Freshman Kamari Wilson will replace Dean and make his first college start Sunday against Eastern Washington.

Cornerback Jaydon Hill will join Wilson in the starting lineup. Hill, a third-year sophomore, will make his first start since 2020. He missed the 2021 season with a torn knee ligament. He impressed Napier and his new staff in the spring but sat out preseason camp with another knee injury.

Hill will replace sophomore Avery Helm, who also struggled against the Vols.

“You talk about what he’s been through from an injury perspective,” Napier said following practice Wednesday. “Jaydon was one of the better players that we had on our team in spring practice. I was very impressed . It’s no surprise to me. He showed pretty quickly here that he’s very capable. I’m excited to watch him play.”

Georgia transfer Jalen Kimber, a former five-star recruit, is now listed as a third-team cornerback. Kimber played just 11 snaps in Knoxville a week after he returned an interception for a touchdown in a 31-28 win against South Florida.

“I like to say we try to eliminate the bad football,” Napier said. “Talking about mental errors, misalignments, poor communication, bad fundamentals and techniques, bad decision-making within the play. … We have a laundry list of things that we need to eliminate each week.

“Last week’s game, I thought we were really close, but there’s 12 or 15 plays in the game where Florida is beating Florida. We’ve got a smart group here. I think they’re very aware of what the issues are, and I think they’re working hard to address those issues.”