NFL’s Future will kick off a new series that will feature future stars in the making. We will run the series periodically throughout the college season as take a look at the new crop of collegiate players.
Towards the end of the 2012 college football season, there wasn’t a better receiver in the country than Alabama’s Amari Cooper. The scary part – he was a true freshman.
Cooper found himself on the biggest of stages as a baby-faced 18-year old as he emerged into AJ McCarron’s top receiving threat on Bama’s National Title team. Yet there was nothing baby-faced or 18-years old about Cooper’s game. Cooper has size at 6-foot-1 and 202 pounds. He has track speed – his mother started him in track at an early age. His route running is that of the most experienced SEC receiver, although he wasn’t asked to run a varied route tree in 2012. Don’t get that confused with poor route running ability – Cooper sticks his foot in the dirt and changes directions with relative ease. And his hands, leaping ability and concentration were as good as any in the country.
Cooper’s comfort in the spotlight was honed at Miami Northwestern High School where he starred with Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Cooper and Bridgewater had plans to lead the resurgence of the hometown Hurricanes but a coaching change would change all that. Bridgewater would head up north to Louisville and Cooper would be wooed by Nick Saban.
Cooper enrolled early at Bama but wouldn’t have his coming out party until DeAndrew White went down in week five against Ole Miss. Up to the Ole Miss game; Cooper had nine receptions for 138 yards and one touchdown. With White out, Cooper would ‘go off’ on the Ole Miss secondary – to the tune of 8 receptions for 84 yards and 2 touchdowns.
The roll wouldn’t stop with the Rebels. Two weeks later Cooper emerged onto the national scene in a 44-13 beat down of the Tennessee Volunteers. Cooper would have a highlight reel contest as ran past, through, and jumped over Tennessee defenders in a 7 catch, 162 yard, and 2 touchdown performance.
The scariest part of Cooper’s freshman performance was that he wasn’t a focal point of Nick Saban’s offense. That will change this season.
Many wondered how Cooper would top his true freshman season – one that was arguably better than Julio Jones’. Well look no further than Bama’s spring game. All spring the talk was of a bigger more explosive Cooper and he showed in the spring game. Cooper would grab 6 balls for 108 yards and 4 touchdowns.
This begs the question of just how good can Amari Cooper be?
The latest phenom SEC receivers include the likes of A.J. Green and Julio Jones. Both were productive from day one of their respective collegiate careers. Both will be perennial Pro Bowlers for their respective teams. Neither was as polished as Cooper is/was coming into their first season.
Trying to find fault in Cooper’s game is beyond impossible. The harsh reality for SEC defenses is that have two seasons (sorry, Bama fans) to try to unlock the secret to stopping the talented pass catcher. Enough of the talking let’s take the tape to look to show you the “Future” of the wide receiver position.
The Tide is in “11” personnel with Cooper one on one in the boundary- pressed up. Enormous mistake by the Volunteers as Cooper has to be accounted for with more than a pressed corner. Cooper is going to take a hard inside release, use his hands to defeat the corner, stack him, and the rest is just talent taking over.
This is a veteran move…not one of a true freshman. Cooper’s release has the corner driving inside. Cooper’s physicality takes over as he releases to go vertical using his outside arm to use the DB’s momentum against him.
Remind yourself – this is an 18-year old, not even five months removed from his high school graduation date. Cooper spatial awareness and eye tracking are as good as they come at this level (including Markus Wheaton, who I fell in love with for these two big reasons). Cooper’s ability to use his hands/arm bar to create separation was vividly obvious in every game. A trait of a veteran receiver, not a true freshman.
This was the matchup of this game for me. Cooper versus Damian Swann. Swann emerged last season as a sophomore and this is going to be a great matchup to watch again this season. Cooper pretty much had his way in this game, no matter who was in coverage. Again, he out-physicals the defender. Swann gets caught a little flat-footed here and the rest is left up to Cooper’s ability to stretch the field.
Good night folks. This kid isn’t missing much and you can chalk up a game winning TD in the SEC Championship on a one-year resume.
HIGH POINT & HANDS
Two special attributes about Cooper. Cooper jumps, concentrates, and comes down with the ball with the best of them. I really could have included a boatload of screenshots but we’ll go with my favorite three.
When Cooper leaves his feet – he’s a special athlete. His body control in the air stands out from his peers, as does his pure leaping ability.
Cooper’s body is only going to continue to develop from a physical standpoint. Reports have suggested that he added 10 solid pounds this offseason. If Cooper continues to add quality weight to his frame, watch out. He innately knows how to use his body to ‘box out’ defenders. Cooper really can make AJ McCarron’s job very easy as he wins these jump ball situations 9 times out of 10.
Be mindful of some of the competition in these screenshots – this is the SEC. Here, Cooper goes up and gets this one over Shawn Williams, who was a third round pick in April’s draft. For those wondering, Williams vertical was 36″ at the Combine. In every shot, take note of Cooper’s eyes as they remain on the ball throughout.
A prerequisite of playing the position is that you can catch the ball. The special ones do so no matter the circumstances. This Ole Miss contest served as his coming out party on a national stage and this catch is a big reason why Cooper has a shot to be talked about in the same sentence as recent SEC greats – Julio Jones and A.J. Green.
Look, I know you have to pick your poison again the Tide. It’s tough providing safety help because of the other weapons AJ McCarron has at his disposal, not the least of which is dynamic back T.J. Yeldon. That said, giving this kid a free run is conceding defeat as he’s going to out-talent any of what the SEC has to offer at the CB position – and there are some good ones.
The most terrifying component of Cooper’s game – he’s just starting to scratch the surface.