That’s the bad news. Now for the worse news: Cooper was a freshman then, and he’s exponentially better heading into Saturday night’s return trip to Knoxville. In fact, he’s widely recognized as the premier wide receiver in college football. Some experts say he’s the best at his position in several years.
ESPN analysts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay agree that Cooper will be the first receiver picked in the 2015 NFL Draft, assuming he comes out as a junior. Numerous experts believe he’s a better prospect than Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, the fourth player picked in the 2014 NFL Draft. ESPN’s Cris Cooper calls Amari (no relation) “probably the most advanced receiver that I have seen at a young age since Randy Moss.”
Certainly, Amari Cooper’s numbers are eye-popping. Even playing for an Alabama team that typically is run-oriented, he ranks fourth nationally in receiving yards with 908. To put that in perspective, Bama’s second-leading receiver has 184. The 6-foot-1, 202-pounder also leads the SEC in receptions with 62. The league runner-up has 37. In addition, Cooper leads the conference in receiving touchdowns (7) and receiving yards per game (129.7).
So, what makes Amari Cooper so special?
“He’s fast,” Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek told InsideTennessee. “He’s extremely quick. He’s athletic. He’s got great ball skills. He can stop on a dime and start on a dime. Really, he’s just a dynamic player. He’s awesome.”
“He can impact the game in the same way those guys did,” Jancek conceded, “but he’s a different type of receiver. He’s a guy that if you just step him off the line and throw it out there to him he’ll accelerate and just outrun some guys.”
Cooper caught a 54-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter of last year’s Tennessee-Bama game in Tuscaloosa and finished with five receptions for 75 yards. Vol secondary coach Willie Martinez calls him “a complete player,” adding: “He blocks when it’s a run play. Very competitive. Outstanding with the ball in the air. Obviously, when he catches it he’s able to make a lot of plays from the standpoint of making guys miss.”
Cooper clearly is the cornerstone of Bama’s passing game. His 62 receptions are 43 more than the Tide’s second-leading receiver. So, why don’t opponents do whatever is necessary to stop Bama from getting the ball to him?
“They’re really good at every position,” Martinez replied. “They have really good running backs, a lot of good receivers – not just one – a great offensive line, a solid, experienced quarterback running that offense and the tight ends. It’s really a complete offense, and that’s why they’re as good as they’ve been. They’re very productive and consistent, and you can’t just focus on one player.”
Actually, you can. Two weeks ago Arkansas put a cornerback in press coverage on Cooper, with downfield help from a safety. So, two weeks after burning Florida for 201 receiving yards and three touchdowns, Cooper managed just two catches for 22 yards against the Hogs, who limited Bama to 14 points.
Vol safety Brian Randolph missed Cooper’s previous visit to Neyland Stadium with a knee injury but got to meet him up close and personal in the 2013 game at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“I definitely covered him some, and he’s a tough dude,” Randolph said. “When you look at him you don’t know if it’s a pass or run because he doesn’t give it away.”
Cooper is known for his precise routes, and Randolph can understand why.
“The thing he does best is his route-running,” the Vol junior said. “There’s no wasted motion. He comes out of the break very well. He doesn’t have anything you can pick up on film that tells you when he’s going to break a route. It’s just all of a sudden.”
In addition to his superior skills, Cooper plays with superior effort.
“He plays every snap to the best of his ability,” Randolph said. “He doesn’t take plays off. He’s very athletic, of course, and he has good size. All of that together makes him one of the best receivers in the nation.”
Oddly enough, Tennessee faced another of the nation’s best receivers last weekend in Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell. Vol cornerback Cameron Sutton did a good job of containing him and looks forward to the challenge of facing Cooper this weekend.
“He’s a complete receiver,” Sutton said. “He plays well in the system that they run. He has great hands, great speed, can make the big plays throughout the course of the game. He's definitely a big part of their offense … definitely a big part of their team. They work around him even when teams are doing things to try and stop him.”
Sutton and his fellow Vol defensive backs will try and stop Cooper Saturday night at Neyland Stadium. If they succeed—as Arkansas did—the Vols could hang with the fourth-ranked Tide. If not, they can comfort themselves with the knowledge that he’ll be playing in the NFL next fall.
John Jancek discusses defending the Tide