Amari Cooper emerging as go-to threat

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- For weeks, months even, the Crimson Tide coaching staff saw it coming.

They glimpsed it in the way Amari Cooper would snatch the ball in midair at practice, the way he'd swing his hips and blow past defenders. They'd see the talent that prompted his top billing out of high school, the same set of speed and skill that caused college coaches from around the country to flock to Northwestern High School in Miami, Fla., and see what all the talk was about.

In truth, UA coach Nick Saban had seen Cooper's potential all along. It's what made him offer Cooper a scholarship and led the usually bearish evaluator to sing the true freshman's praises throughout the spring and fall camp.

Rookies are usually seen and not heard at Alabama, kept away from reporters because of long-standing media policies and rarely spoken about by a head coach a few weeks removed from his 61st birthday. Cooper, though, seemed to be the exception. And for four weeks of the regular season, fans anxiously waited to see why.

Against Ole Miss on Saturday, the answer became clear. Cooper had two touchdowns before halftime and finished the game with eight catches for 84 yards, blowing away previous team-highs this season. Even on a damp, muggy night, the reason for so much optimism surrounding Cooper was clear as day.

"We really had high hopes that Amari Cooper would one day sort of find himself and do the things like he does in practice all the time in the game. I think that happened today," Saban said after the game. "He played very well. That’s a guy that can be an explosive player for us and help us out down the road."

At times, Cooper was the only receiver on the field for Alabama. Despite junior Kevin Norwood returning to action and sophomore Christion Jones showing his own big-play potential, coaches left the true freshman alone on the outside, their lone threat when they brought in three tight ends and a tailback.

For a receiver who entered the game listed as a reserve on the depth chart, the move signaled both his ascension to starter as well as the coaches' belief that his game was finally translating to Saturdays, the wow moments in shorts and shells ready to come out in live action.

"He's done a great job," said quarterback AJ McCarron. "Amari's a very good receiver, a good teammate. He progresses every day and that's what we're going to need."

For a night, it seemed as if McCarron had found his go-to target. The usually accommodating quarterback -- he entered the weekend having attempted 10-11 passes to four different receivers -- had his most lopsided game spreading the ball around. Norwood and Jones each had two catches, a far cry from Cooper's eight.

McCarron came away impressed with the way Cooper made plays with the football. On his first touchdown, McCarron found Cooper on a long crossing route right at the pylon, the rookie getting a foot down just in time before going out of bounds.

On Cooper's next touchdown, McCarron simply threw the ball in his direction at the back of the end zone and hoped he'd come down with it. Cooper leaped over the defender and snatched the ball over Frank Crawford's head.

"I saw him working the back line and I threw it as high as I could -- I got hit at the same time so I couldn't get much on it -- and he went up and made a good play," McCarron said.

On a night when none of the receivers seemed to be stepping up and the offense was stagnant, Cooper stood apart, his talent finally obvious to those who weren't around to see it on the practice fields since his arrival in February.

"He was probably our lone bright spot on offense," said UA center Barrett Jones. "He did a really good job of being the man, getting open and making some plays."

The teenager might not be a man or even the man yet, but his play on the football field is beginning to take on the look of one in the making.