Soft-Spoken Cooper Speaks Loudly With Play

Amari Cooper dutifully answers questions posed by media members in the Naylor Stone Media Room at the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility on the campus at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The responses are polite and succinct with not a hint of bravado from the junior destined to be a first round NFL draft choice. Clark Kent was viewed as mild-mannered when not in his Superman cape.

So is the Heisman Trophy candidate from South Florida until the ball is in his hands.

Amari Cooper’s loud on-the-field deeds have reverberated in the school record book. He is the most prolific wide receiver in Crimson Tide history either tying* or setting every major single game (*13, 224, *3), season (90, 11, 1,349) and career (*194, 3,085, 26) reception, receiving yards and touchdown receptions record. Two of those milestones had stood for 62 and 47 years respectively (season and career touchdown receptions).

Additionally, he had a program record six consecutive 100-yard receiving games and is tied with 13 career 100-yard receiving games. He stands alone as the only Tide wide receiver to record a pair of two-hundred plus yards receiving games.

The achievements are no surprise to Billy Rolle, Cooper’s distant cousin and his former head coach at Miami Northwestern Senior High School. “If he was healthy, there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t be able to accomplish,” said Rolle.

Cooper has matured. Rolle said, ”He seems to be a lot more serious in his approach to the game. He has grown a lot not only physically but mentally, too. He wants to make something happen.”

After nearly three seasons at The Capstone, Cooper’s collective game day happenings have resulted in establishing records that may last for decades. Double teams and bracket coverages can normally negate the effectiveness of a single player. The addition of Lane Kiffin to the staff as offensive coordinator is another reason the Miami native has flourished. A scheme featuring a wide receiver the caliber of Cooper exploits opposing defensives.

Superior athletes occasionally are nonchalant with the routine. Cooper, anxious to generate a spectacular highlight on a short throw, has uncharacteristically had a number of miscues. “The few passes he dropped are because he saw too much daylight,” said Rolle. The Blake Sims to Cooper slant pass from the right side on third down and less than 10 has become an automatic call succeeding with regularity. The 2012 consensus Freshman All-America has embraced an essential friend of every player: toughness. He has shown the ability to weather injuries ever since his sophomore season in high school.

Quiet confidence lies beneath the venire of shyness. “He’s always been quiet and kind of shy,” said Michelle Green, the proud mother of Alabama’s next All-America wide receiver. Where did this reserved, calm and seemingly bashful superstar gain his self-assuredness? “Me, of course,” she said with a hearty chuckle. “I’m confident.”

Moreover, Cooper, his quiet demeanor notwithstanding, has a reputation among his teammates for being humorous. “He’s very funny,” said his mom. “Once he gets used to being around people, he will open up. He’ll make us laugh.”

Track was Cooper’s first venture into sports but a curiosity developed about the game being played by boys in the nearby park – football. Thoughts of being tackled clearly were a concern but family friend, Harry Thurston, encouraged the reluctant Cooper to participate. The activity was a foreshadowing of events. His mother said, “He did real well from the very start and was making touchdowns in the park.” Cooper’s penchant for the end zone was immediately evident.

All of Ms. Green’s children have a name beginning with the letter ‘A’ – Airrika, Avery, Ashley and Aspen. Searching for another with the same first letter, her cousin, Wanda Foster, suggested the name Amari. Watching her son play football is exciting, yet can elicit some apprehensive moments.

“My heart is racing every game,” she said. “ I am thinking, ‘Please no one hurt my son.’”

Cooper causes serious issues for opposing defenses but off-the-field, he is a mother’s dream. “He’s a good kid,” said his mother. “I never had any problems with him. I never had to chastise him.” Mother and son have a close relationship. They speak at least twice a week and after every game.

External factors are the demons Saban rails against as distractions. Cooper seems impervious to anything resembling pressure. “He is serious about football but does not stress over it,” said mom. “If he does, I don’t know it. It’s just a game. He enjoys playing it.”

The cool demeanor shields the fervent competitor. He has tremendous poise. Cooper is the reticent celebrity shunning the attention. “Some athletes showboat, brag and like to be seen,” she said. “That’s not Amari’s personality.” He prefers tending to business, enjoys video games, and reading history – American and African-American.

Cooper loves music, too. An entertaining spirit probably remains dormant. So far Cooper has busted moves to the sheer delight of the Alabama faithful but to the chagrin of defensive backs and opposing fans. Those favoring crimson will forever remember him sprinting down the sidelines, spinning away from would-be tacklers, a series of acrobatic catches at the zenith of the ball’s delivery, and double fakes on routes to break open.

Six wide receivers in the entire 122 years of Alabama football have distinguished themselves as first-team All-America. Don Hutson (1934) was a charter member of both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. Ozzie Newsome (1977) is also a dual inductee. Newsome known as “The Wizard” and Wayne Wheeler (1973) achieved stardom within the run-oriented wishbone offense. Ray Perkins (1966) and Dennis Homan (1967) were Crimson Tide perimeter teammates simultaneously terrorizing defenses. David Palmer (1993), the most recent honoree showcased a triple threat versatility vaulting him to third in the Heisman voting. Not even the fabled Quintorris Lopez “Julio” Jones (2008-10) was voted to be a member of this prestigious fraternity.

Every one of those sure-handed physically gifted pass catchers displayed an array of exceptional skills. Amari Cooper is a composite of the past embodying the extraordinary traits and physical attributes of the collective half-dozen Bama luminaries. Hutson (Pine Bluff, Ark.) was considered the prototype modern receiver. He was extremely fast with a game changing extra gear to chase down the deep ball.

Precise route runners Perkins and Homan shared a reputation of routinely racing past defensive backs. Separating from the secondary was the specialty for those pair of converted running backs and track stars.

Wheeler, another sprinter, was a member of that blazing speed club as well. He was known for leaving cornerbacks eating cleat generated dust on the long pass commonly called “the bomb.”

Newsome was an imposing figure able to dominate possession of the ball in the air with the aplomb of a small forward in basketball. He would frequently sacrifice his body by lying out prone to make a sensational catch.

Exacting as Palmer was running routes he was equally adept at mastering the art of elusiveness amid a host of tacklers. Even defenders in close proximity assigned to chip him at the line of scrimmage rarely succeeded.

Shades of all those receivers are present in Cooper’s repertoire.

“I don’t know that he has a weakness, and it’s not because he’s at Alabama either,” said Ray Perkins. Cooper was impressive the first time he laid eyes on him. “He’s got excellent size, quickness and cutting ability. He’s got great speed, burst and hands. I’m not sure he’s the best receiver to ever come out of college. He certainly is the best receiver that’s ever come out of Alabama. I think Amari Cooper will go down as one of the greatest receivers to ever come around.” Perkins effusive praise for the wide receiver extends beyond the position. “He’s got to be among the top three or four players regardless of position to ever come out of Alabama. He is that impressive,” said the Petal, Miss., native.

Homan strongly concurred with the notion set forth by Perkins. “He is the best athlete I’ve ever seen in my life,” Homan said. “That is any position on the field. Usually with the Heisman Trophy they select backs and quarterbacks. He ought to win the Heisman Trophy. He is that good.” Homan added, “He’s the best athlete in any sport you want to name. In my opinion he is the best athlete to play the game. He is so far above me when I played at Alabama or in the NFL, he could make me look like Ned in the first reader. He will do great at the next level.”

Better than Jerry Rice you may ask? “He (Rice) was a great receiver no doubt and a great player,” Homan said. “But I’m telling you that Amari Cooper is the best athlete I’ve ever seen, bar none.”

Cooper broke a school record Homan held for 47 years – most career touchdown receptions of 18. He currently has 26 with at least one more regular season game, a possible league championship game, and possible multiple post-season games remaining.

Homan noted the moment with a special hand-written congratulatory note to Cooper. “I felt in my heart that was the right thing to do,” Homan said. “He deserves it. I appreciate what he has done for The University and the great season and career he has had.” Respect extends beyond the on-field performance.

“He is a class guy and he’s a humble guy,” said Homan. “When he scores a touchdown or makes a big play he hits a knee and points upward.” The two have yet to meet.

Homan, a native of Muscle Shoals, said, “They can double-cover him or do whatever they want to, but he will run past them. I am not taking away from the other great players at Alabama or anywhere else. I think he is the greatest player to have ever played the game and that’s at any school or program anywhere.”

Man-to-man or zone coverage has not curtailed Cooper’s offensive outbursts. Homan said, “He is very good at finding open spots. Great receivers know how to find them and can read defenses. He is not only talented physically with great hands but he is very smart.”

Fellow (Orlando) Floridian Wayne Wheeler said, “He does a lot with the ball after he catches it with people all around him.” A transformation occurs once the reception is secured. Explosive plays are a common event.

Cooper, measured against wide receivers and running backs, has a nation leading 25 plays (24 pass, 1 run) of 20 yards or more. “I just watch the way he moves,” Wheeler said. “He is really fluid for a bigger guy. He moves very well with his feet. Many times someone that big does not move that well, but he runs like a running back. He is just a great complete all-around athlete. He excels at every phase of the game.”

Former Alabama quarterback Richard Todd is a college teammate familiar with the exploits of Newsome, the former star at Colbert County in Leighton. Acting in proxy role due to the restrictions placed upon Baltimore Ravens General Manager and Executive Vice President Newsome from commenting on college underclassman Todd said, “Cooper’s got everything. He’s got good size and is stronger than people realize because of the way he pulls away from people. He reminds me of Lynn Swan with his body control but I think he is faster. He has that extra burst of speed similar to the fastest guy I ever played with on the New York Jets, Wesley Walker. He is extremely quick off the line and has great hands.”

Defensive backs have difficulty slowing down Cooper at the line of scrimmage. “Half the time he jukes them so much, they can’t even grab him,” Todd said.

A Sympatico experience has led Palmer to view Cooper with a keen eye. Every time the ball was in the hands of “The Deuce”, the crowd was on the edge of their seat with anticipation. Palmer believes the same scenario exists with Cooper. “He gets off the jam very well, runs excellent routes, and can get away from defenders.,” Birmingham native Palmer said. “He’s a speedster and a triple threat.

“They are getting him involved in many ways now besides throwing the ball down the field. Last week they threw the ball to him as a running back. It is very tough for defenders to cover him. He’s at the top of his game right and probably the best receiver to ever come through Alabama.”

Phil Savage is the executive director of the Senior Bowl and radio color commentator for the Crimson Tide Sports Network which broadcasts Alabama football games. He has witnessed the exploits of Amari Cooper since day one.

Savage said, “The first thing that jumps out when you have a chance to see him in person is the natural athleticism. He is a supreme athlete – quickness, speed, agility, balance, body control, hand-eye coordination. He’s got very good hands and is sensational after the catch. He is a natural in terms of his route running and knows how to set defensive backs up. He has that subtle ability to give a hint here, a hint there and all of a sudden he’s gone.”

Receivers with gear changing speeds are game changers. “All the great receivers save a little something in terms of being able to gear down in a zone to make a catch or accelerate if the quarterback’s pass is off-line,” Savage said. “Amari can spear that ball out of mid-air and never miss a stride.”

Superlatives are among the standard descriptions for any one witnessing the feats of no. 9 donning the crimson and white. The man privileged to coach him at Alabama expressed many in a November press conference. “Amari Cooper has done a great job for us his entire career,” said Alabama Coach Nick Saban. “I think he’s improved and been a more productive player each year as he’s matured as a person and a player and gained more knowledge and experience. He’s had a phenomenal year this year. He’s featured in a lot of things and has seldom disappointed us in the way he’s preformed and the way he’s played. We’re just trying to get him in a position to hopefully finish strong and put a great cap on what has so far, been an outstanding year.”

The 6-1, 210 pound Cooper is one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award given to the outstanding receiver regardless of position based on performance for the current season. NFL scouts have high praise for Cooper. He grades well on all the critical factors: an ability to defeat the press, separation, catches the ball in a contested situation, route running, yards created after catch, elusiveness, understands the passing game, hands, variable speeds and toughness.

Alabama fifth-year senior quarterback Blake Sims was asked if trusted receiver Cooper has surprised him, ““I think the game against Mississippi State when he made that catch, man that was a great catch. Things he’s been doing, I’ve seen a million times and I’m just happy for the success he had this year.”

Sims assessed the career of his revered teammate by saying, “He has done a great job from his first year to now. He is a hard-working person. The reason he has succeeded is because of what he does when the cameras are not on and the lights are off. He is working when people are asleep which helps you get results. He is helping the people around him get better too. He is the reason other people are open. When you’ve got somebody like that, you want to work hard for them too.”

The exclusive club of six First Team All-Americans, Hutson, Perkins, Homan, Wheeler, Newsome, and Palmer should be welcoming a seventh member soon. He could be the new chairman of the esteemed group. Admiration from those of the immortal six able to voice their opinion is unanimous. Sims also said, “I think he’s the most exciting guy on the team.” Amari Cooper, playmaker extraordinaire, may be the most thrilling athlete in Alabama football history.

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