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October 21, 2012KNOXVILLE, Tenn. | As if to send a not-so-subtle message to the doubters who questioned the health of his knee, AJ McCarron was out front leading his Crimson Tide teammates out of the tunnel Saturday night as if to say, 'Yep, nothing wrong with my knee.'
Then he went out and helped introduce freshman wide receiving sensation Amari Cooper to a nationally televised audience. Sure, those in Tuscaloosa and around the Yellow Hammer state knew of the athletically gifted player, but McCarron-to-Cooper all night through the Tennessee defense expediated the process.
If Cooper's two-touchdown performance against Ole Miss put him on the map to UA fans, he had his 'Hello SEC' game against the Volunteers. By halftime, he had 120 yards receiving and a touchdown on six catches, and he added to that in the second half.
The Miami native finished with seven catches for 162 yards and two touchdowns, setting a school record for most yards receiving in a single game by a freshman. And that doesn't include a 30-yard touchdown that was called back due to an illegal formation in the third quarter.
It was his first 100-yard receiving game.
"He's awesome," senior center Barrett Jones said. "He's a really explosive player. We needed one of those to emerge, and he's really done that and filled that role. Even after he catches the ball, he is really dangerous. We're starting to see that. He's a machine."
McCarron found an uncovered Cooper in the right corner of the end zone for the Tide's first points of the game. He then hauled in a 54-yard reception over a Tennessee defender midway through the second quarter, setting the offense up at the 15. Two plays later, Alabama led 20-3.
Cooper then fought off a UT defender for a 42-yard score in the third quarter to put the Tide up 30-10.
It was a historic night for the youngster.
"He's had some big plays all year long," UA coach Nick Saban said. "We think he's an outstanding player. He's gotten better and better every week. He really has learned to be really consistent in how he plays. He plays fast and he plays hard."
McCarron-to-Cooper is quickly becoming one of the biggest weapons for an Alabama offense that set a school record Saturday with 33 or more points in seven straight games.
"He's awesome," McCarron said. "It doesn't surprise me one bit. He can be as good as he wants to be. As long as he keeps working and keeps putting forth the effort, the sky's the limit for that kid."
McCarron showed that his bruised knee is just fine, throwing for a career-high 306 yards and tying a career mark with four touchdowns. He finished 17 of 22 with no interceptions, extending his consecutive passing streak to 239 without a pick.
"AJ was so solid tonight," Jones said. "I think we're starting to see he's much more than a game manager. He's explosive. They brought a lot of guys in the box, we needed to throw the ball and we did that."
He rolled out of the pocket several times, showing no limits in range of motion. He connected with six different receivers.
"AJ played well," Saban said. "We'd still like for him to not take hits in the pocket. He did a better job on third down tonight. He made some really big plays with some great throws down the field."
Reach Aaron Suttles at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.