It was not fair to contemplate a 2015 Alabama wide receiver “stepping into the shoes” of 2014 Biletnikoff winner and No. 4 player taken in the NFL draft, Amari Cooper. In his final season at Alabama, Cooper caught a Crimson Tide record 124 passes for a record 1,727 yards and record 16 touchdowns.
Bama’s passing game this season was further jeopardized by 2014 No. 2 receiver DeAndrew White (40 catches for 504 yards and 4 TDs) and No. 3 Christion Jones (19-264-1) also moving on to the NFL. Moreover, the Tide was breaking in a new quarterback in Jacob Coker.
Most expected Robert Foster to be the go-to guy this season, but the third-year junior was injured in Bama’s third game and lost for the year after having just 10 catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns.
So what has happened in the passing game this year?
For one thing, Derrick Henry. It is understandable that Alabama relied heavily on the running game. After all, Henry already has more yards and touchdowns rushing than he and first team 2014 star T.J. Yeldon had combined last season. Henry has 1,986 yards and 23 TDs, while the two of them last year had 1,969 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Passing production is down. Last year the Tide, quarterbacked by Blake Sims, completed 290-451 for 3,487 yards and 28 touchdowns. This year under (primarily) Coker Bama is 260-390 for 2,786 yards and 18 TDs.
No one, though, can complain about the job Alabama’s top three receivers have done this year. True freshman Calvin Ridley leads Alabama with 75 receptions for 893 yards. His 75 catches broke the freshman record set by Cooper (59), who had broken the record set by Julio Jones (58). Sophomore ArDarius Stewart has 54 catches for 600 yards and and graduate transfer from Oregon State Richard Mullaney has 34 catches for 308 yards. Ridley and Mullaney have five touchdown receptions, Stewart four (including one each in the last two games, wins over Auburn and Florida in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game).
In the SEC title game, Stewart and Mullaney had touchdown receptions and Ridley had a 55-yard catch that set up a short touchdown run by Henry.
It may be that Alabama won the SEC championship and is in the College Football Playoff because of a clutch, acrobatic reception by Stewart on the winning touchdown drive against Tennessee. Ridley also had a big catch in that drive. Stewart also had a nice snare of a touchdown pass on a broken play in the win at Auburn, and had another one with defenders all around against Florida.
Bama’s Big Three this year have combined for 163 receptions for 1,801 yards and 14 touchdowns. Their work is not done.
Alabama takes on Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff in the Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington on Dec. 31. The winner of that game goes to the national championship game against either Clemson or Oklahoma on Jan. 11.