Having already set Alabama and SEC records this season, the Crimson Tide's Amari Cooper heads the New York this week as a Heisman finalist. Although his incredible season may have blown past most people's expectations, some could have seen it coming.
Amari Cooper is busy this week, but then again he generally has everything except free time on his hands. Alabama’s lead wide receiver began the week with five final exams between Monday and Tuesday. He flew to Florida on Wednesday to take part in the college football awards extravaganza Thursday night. Then it will be on to New York City and two days of tourism and feting as one of three Heisman Trophy finalists, the fourth Crimson Tide player to get the invite since 2009.
Consider the whirlwind week emblematic of how the 6-foot-1 junior has gotten to this point, becoming most prolific single-season pass-catcher in SEC history: constant movement, shifting locations, and a dose of intense star treatment following him wherever he wound up.
“One of the things that we try to do to counteract (defensive attention) is move him around a lot,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said before a win over Missouri in the SEC championship game propelled the Crimson Tide to the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff. “People really don't sort of understand and maybe respect how difficult that is for him, to be able to make the adaptations and adjustments to play different positions, even though it's all receiver.”
Getting a grasp on the results is far easier. Cooper’s 115 receptions and 1,656 yards lead the nation and set new Alabama records. His catches are already the most in a season in SEC history, and he'll claim the receiving yards record as well with 85 yards in the playoff. Cooper's 8.8 catches and 127.4 yards per game both rank second nationally. Although he’s unlikely join former Crimson Tide tailback Mark Ingram as the school’s only Heisman winners, Cooper was named the SEC Player of the Year this week and should win the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver in a landslide. It was an eye-opening regular season -- even for a player who had a 1,000-yard campaign as a freshman in 2012 -- but keener eyes might have seen it coming, too.
Cooper’s production is a bit of alchemy, a formula mixing his considerable raw ability and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s preference to unabashedly feed his best players the ball as much as possible. Cooper had double-digit receptions in three of the Crimson Tide’s first four games. Only twice did he have less than eight. In an injury-riddled 2013, Cooper didn’t record any double-digit reception outings, and his season-best total was a nine-catch day against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl (by which time Kiffin had already spent a week evaluating Alabama’s offense as a guest advisor). “There’s no other player in college football who makes it look easier,” Sooners linebacker Eric Striker told reporters in Norman last week, per OU Insider. “He gets it done. You throw the ball to him, and what can you do? Nothing."
Cooper has managed all his production this season despite a few nagging bumps and bruises along the way. He absorbed a big hit in the first half against Arkansas and received medical attention, recording a season-low two receptions. He also suffered an apparent knee injury in the first half against Western Carolina in late November.
That knee issue so hindered Cooper, he amassed a mere 13 catches for 224 yards (tying his own school record) and three touchdowns against Auburn the following weekend. There’s no limit to how much Alabama throws to its star wideout. When Cooper is at full health, or near it, there doesn’t seem to be much of a cap on what he can accomplish.
Cooper is so automatic that Kiffin even began celebrating after merely seeing the coverage against Cooper when the ball was snapped during a third quarter play in the Iron Bowl. Sure enough, the wide receiver broke away from the lone safety attempting to cover him for a 39-yard touchdown.
“Amari's gotten better and better every year because he's a hard worker and really a prideful guy in terms of his performance,” Saban said this week. “He's played with a lot more consistency this year, and his focus has been better. He hasn't let little things bother him, whether it's a little nagging injury or whatever, and has just been kind of a demon every time the game comes in terms of how he competes. And we've used him and featured him, and he certainly has taken advantage of those opportunities.”