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Making the Case for Amari Cooper

While many shudder at early season summations of player performance, many would argue that Alabama's Amari Cooper has been the most lethal offensive weapon on any team so far. But is he the best player in CFB at this moment? One could argue...

Amari Cooper posterizing All-American corner Vernon Hargeaves III for a TD
Amari Cooper posterizing All-American corner Vernon Hargeaves III for a TD
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

In the pre-season, Amari Cooper looked like a man on a mission. From his appearance at SEC Media Days and interviews during camp, the junior wide receiver appeared physically and mentally restored following a frustrating sophomore campaign in which he found himself injured and at less than 100 % effectiveness throughout the season. Some would argue Cooper was not just not just fully restored, but well...salty.

That demeanor has proven prophetic regarding Cooper's performance to open the season. In 2014, thus far, he has 43 receptions for 655 yards and four TDs in 2014...THROUGH FOUR GAMES! (I know, I know, tone down the Gump. But still, not bad for a 4-star athlete out of Miami's Miami Northwest, huh?)

After a 10-catch, 201 yard, three TD performance against the vaunted Florida defense (which saw him often matched against All-American corner Vernon Hargreaves III in man coverage) last Saturday, fans and experts nationwide are drinking the Coop-Aid, proclaiming him as a worthy Heisman candidate and a potential top 10 pick in next year's NFL Draft. If one were to give the Golden Fleece to the champion of the early season, many, at this point, would drape it over the shoulders of Alabama's Cooper.

But is there more to Cooper than just the hype? Sure, he was a dynamic play-maker in 2012 when he burst on the scene, shattering the once-thought-unassailable freshman receiving records of Julio Jones the way Carson Tinker's dad Carleton shatters crystal footballs. And yes, his numbers so far in 2014 portend a historic year for Alabama's most dynamic offensive weapon.

In a year when many expected the Alabama passing game to take a step back with the departure of former signal-caller AJ McCarron, Blake Sims has been able to get the ball to Cooper early and often. And Cooper has, quite simply, held up his end of the bargain in a big way. Last Saturday's performance was an impressive one, with the duo routinely burning the Gators on deep routes, across the seam and in the flat. It was an offensive clinic, and aside from the turnovers, represented one of the Tide's most impressive offensive performances in recent memory (against one of the better defenses in the nation, at that.)

But what is it that makes Cooper so dominant? Let's take a closer look, shall we?

Cooper has the typical build of a 1980s NFL receiver (Jerry Rice comes to mind): not freakishly tall, but not in-the-slot shifty-small in stature like many typical possession receivers of the day. Unlike Rice, however, Cooper is built for speed, having been clocked numerous times at 4.4 in the 40 (here he is running a 4.4...but he also reportedly clocked a 4.31 this spring.) At 6'1" and 203 pounds (210 pounds if you consult his profile on, Coop has the size and athleticism to dominate all but the largest and fastest corners in the SEC.

But there are lots of big receivers out there with quick wheels...why aren't they as highly touted? Quite simply, Coop has straight-line speed, but he has so much more. It's often his quickness and route-running ability that gets him open, but it's his high level of polish at the position that has NFL scouts drooling. draft expert Bucky Brooks had this to say about Cooper in the pre-season (you can read the remainder of Brooks' very informative article on Cooper here):

"He capably runs a pro-like route tree in Alabama's offense, exhibiting outstanding balance and body control getting in and out of his breaks. Additionally, Cooper flashes exceptional short-area quickness running away from defenders at the top of routes, leading to significant separation on intermediate and vertical routes. Most impressive, Cooper displays exceptional patience and timing as a route runner. He patiently sets up defenders with a variety of stems and fakes at the top of routes that make it nearly impossible to anticipate his next move. Consequently, Cooper frequently shakes free from tight coverage despite being the focal point of most defensive game plans around the SEC."

This was most certainly the case during the game against Florida, as Coach Will Muschamp had Hargreaves (one of the nation's best corners) jamming Cooper from the line in man at times. While Hargreaves wasn't exclusively matched with Cooper (he was often left to cover the boundary in zone, whether Coop lined up outside or not), it was clear that Cooper had no trouble in batting away the challenge of facing a top corner in man coverages.

Cooper's versatility is also impressive. Sure, he can run the go routes with the best of them, but because of his ability, he is a chess piece that can force the hand of opposing defenses. A key for the Tide in the Florida game was the way Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin moved Cooper around and obfuscated the game plan. Not that one would ever use a weapon as valuable as Cooper only as a decoy, but Kiffin used Cooper (and possibly Florida's fear of him) to keep the Gator defense off-balance, as evidenced in the words of the UF players and coaches themselves.

After the game, Muschamp said:

"They moved him around a little bit more than they had before so we've just got to cover down and cover a little better in those situations."

Gator safety Keanu Neal added:

"We haven't (seen a receiver as good as Cooper) this year, but I'm sure we're going to face plenty more as good as him. He's a great player. We could have stopped him, but it's a lack of communication on our part."

Neal's bravado (and possible delusion) aside, both he and his coach softly iterated their frustration in keeping up with Cooper pre-snap. And they had grounds for that frustration, as Alabama exploited it. For example, on this memorable play...

Kiffin saw the mismatch with Neal over the middle and recognized the safety's role in the coverage would draw him towards the sideline. Instead of having Cooper flow outside into what appeared to be a developing cover 2 (with the safety rotating over to assist the boundary corner), Cooper broke inside, uncovered, and gashed a confused Gator defense for one of several long touchdown receptions. Innovative play call, flawless execution, devastating straight-line speed. That's exactly what one can expect from Alabama's offense with Amari Cooper, simply put.

Alabama QB Blake Sims agreed that forcing defenses to account for Cooper opens up other opportunities for the Tide offense:

"It really helps when everyone focuses on him you have other receivers to throw to. Cooper does it very well, and he is great team player. He gives extra effort all the time and it's good to have him and know that you always have someone open."

Not only is Cooper a large, athletic receiver with elite speed and professional-route-running ability, but he has Velcro-handed ball skills when the ball is in the air. Cooper made a name for himself with several acrobatic catches in the opening stanza of his Bama tenure in 2012, and that tendency continues to this day. I offer Exhibit A, which comes from Bama's most recent game against Florida:

Cooper runs a standard fade into tight double-coverage, as the safety rolls over to help Hargreaves in defending a well-thrown ball by Jacob Coker. Despite Hargreaves' (again, a pre-season All-American corner) having a tucked handful of jersey, Coop has the power to accelerate up through the defenders, and the soft mitts to reel in what could have easily been an incomplete pass. He flawlessly times his jump to high-point the ball over the marginally shorter (but extremely hoppy) Hargreaves, creating space to pull down a ball that could easily have been deflected or dropped. Instead, it was a record-breaking grab for Cooper's 20th career touchdown reception, a catch that made him the career TD reception leader in Crimson Tide football history.

In his profile, Brooks agrees in his summation of Cooper's draft prospects, stating:

"Cooper is a natural pass catcher with outstanding ball skills. He easily plucks the ball out of the air with his big mitts and doesn't appear to have any problems wrestling the ball away from defenders on contested catches. Cooper's impressive collection of acrobatic catches throughout his career alleviates any concerns about his hands or ball skills..."

Perfect routes, excellent size, explosive speed, great ball skills...what else are we missing? With Cooper, one must take into account his overall impact on the game. Opposing defenses know the WR will make his plays, and his skill set forces many defenses to commit extra defensive backs and step out of their respective comfort zones. While Cooper is reliable for short gains, he is both routinely reliable and potentially explosive each time he touches the ball, from any spot on the field.

When Bama has called upon Cooper, he has answered the bell. In Sims' first game of the year, it was Cooper who was his security blanket and confidence builder. Historically, when Alabama has needed a first down, Cooper has produced. In 2013, despite a season shortened by injuries, Cooper still had 45 receptions...28 of which went to convert first downs (do you clutch much?) In that same year, 15 of Coop's touches resulted in "explosive plays," or in the terms of the layman, plays for more than 15 yards. Cooper continues that trend in 2014, as in every game but the opener against West Virginia, Cooper has had at least one touchdown reception of 27 yards or greater.

At times, especially early in 2014, Coop has served as a proxy running game for a Tide offense that has struggled to run between the tackles. Neither Tide running back Derrick Henry nor T.J. Yeldon are particularly adept at running outside or pressing the edges. So when the opposing defense has played soft near the boundary, Kiffin and Cooper have made them pay with the short passing game due to Cooper's enormous yards-after-catch potential, utilizing quick screens and short slants to pick up modest yardage when the inside running game struggled. For Sims, it's a simple pitch and catch, and Cooper uses his elusiveness, field vision and speed to do the rest.

In the past, the Tide has preferred to keep the ball on the ground when pinned in its own end of the field, choosing instead to pound the ball, trust the defense and play the field position game if necessary. But the times they are a changin' and part of the reason is Cooper's ability and the faith the coaching staff has in it. Take into account this statistical tidbit, for example: when Bama has found itself between its own 20 and 39 yard lines, Cooper has accounted for 21 receptions and 390 yards (roughly half of his totals in both categories for the season to date), including a 79-yard touchdown catch against Florida last Saturday.

Then there are the intangibles: work ethic, commitment, discipline, leadership. According to Nick Saban, those may be the biggest developments in Cooper's game since the early days of his career at the Capstone:

"He's always been a good player. He had a great offseason, always had a good work ethic. Now he's more mature to play through things that used to affect him."

It's obvious to both the casual observer and expert alike...Amari Cooper is the real deal. He is undoubtedly among the top three receivers in the college game, and will certainly be a first round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. He is the bread-and-butter of the Alabama offense, and is at the heart of much of what Kiffin has designed for the Tide. Cooper will be a huge part of anything Alabama accomplishes this year offensively, as more times than not, he is simply the best football player on the field.

Just ask NFL Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter, a familiar of the Alabama program, who spoke up this week regarding the things he's seen from Alabama's star receiver since meeting him as a high school player at camps and All-Star games during Coop's prep career. In Carter's book, Cooper is the best Bama receiver since Ozzie Newsome:

"I don't know what he's going to do in the pros, but since Ozzie Newsome, Alabama has the best wide receiver that they have had in the history of their school and his name is Amari Cooper. He is a true junior from Miami and he is fabulous. His ability to run routes- I met Amari when he was in high school at a football clinic and he's probably the most advanced wide receiver that I have seen at a young age since Randy Moss. He as unbelievable speed, unbelievable demeanor, route running, the sky is the limit.

"I think right now on Mel Kiper's Big Board he's number three, but he could be the first pick in the draft as a wide receiver and he has everything from a character standpoint that you would on and off the football field...Amari Cooper, he's worth the price of admission."

Worth the cost of admission, indeed. Especially for those wearing crimson and white.