Tide freshman explodes onto SEC scene
TUSCALOOSA | The one-year circle for Amari Cooper will close complete on Jan. 7.
On that day, the Miami native will perform in his hometown in the BCS National Championship Game at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., almost a year to the day after he left the area to enroll in classes at the University of Alabama.
The freshman wide receiver has needed just 12 months to accomplish a lot: Getting acclimated to college life, taking hold of a significant role in spring practice, overcoming injuries, and ultimately, posting arguably the most impressive season by a freshman receiver in school history.
"It's a dream come true. It's the stage I dreamed of being on in high school," Cooper said following Alabama's 32-28 win over Georgia for the Southeastern Conference title. "It's a dream come true and I can't wait to go and play in front of my hometown."
Cooper enters the BCS title game with 53 catches for 894 yards, the sixth-highest single-season total for receiving yards in school history. Cooper is just five catches and 30 yards behind the season Julio Jones posted in 2008 that set school freshman records. His nine touchdowns on the year put him just one behind the school record of 10, set by Al Lary in 1950.
And against the Irish on Jan. 7, with 106-plus yards receiving, he would become just the fourth player in school history to post a 1,000-yard receiving season. Julio Jones and David Palmer accomplished that once each, while D.J. Hall did it twice.
And after last weekend, it's also become clear he can play his best in the biggest of games. He played a huge role in Alabama's 32-28 win over Georgia in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game last weekend, catching seven passes for 127 yards. One of those was a game-winner, a 45-yard deep touchdown pass from AJ McCarron with 3:15 remaining.
"We were going to take a shot the first play of that series. I said 'Let's try to take the clock and the game, make a first down or two, then take one, and they kept playing that same thing, trying to stop the run," said UA coach Nick Saban. "So it was a big play on third and 5 to get a first down running the ball. We would have gone for it on fourth down there I think for sure. Then we took the shot and AJ made a great throw and Coop made a great catch."
That wasn't where Cooper's impact began, however.
It was only where it ended.
In the first half, he outfought Georgia standout free safety Bacarri Rambo for a 44-yard catch that flipped field position in Alabama's favor. McCarron also threw Cooper several short hitch passes, and Cooper said some of those were check-offs by McCarron when he noticed the Bulldogs cornerbacks playing too far off him.
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Earlier this week, he was named to the Freshman All-SEC team, as chosen by league coaches. Cooper came across as anything but brash or boastful following his performance in Atlanta. Instead, he deferred credit to teammates. But he also carries a certain level of confidence in his ability that is basic to successful athletes.
"That's why I came to Alabama. ... I came to Alabama expecting this. This is what I expected, and it's what happened," he said.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, in his first public remarks after learning of the Alabama-Notre Dame matchup, made clear reference to Cooper without naming him specifically.
"I think what makes them very difficult to defend is that they've got a great playmaker on the perimeter as well, where you can throw the ball down the field," Kelly said.
It was the kind of season Alabama's Chris Black, another freshman receiver from the Sunshine State, had hoped for. But Cooper's good fortune can't strike everyone. Black's first year of college was more about misfortune. A shoulder injury sustained in fall camp put an end to Black's season before it had a chance to start. And while Black has recovered and was available to play against Georgia last weekend, he still has yet to play this season.
Black, however, is among Cooper's biggest fans.
"He definitely represented the state of Florida. We've got the best athletes (in Florida)," said Black, who is roommates with Cooper. "I'm very proud of him. We're good friends."
Reach Chase Goodbread at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0196.