As accolades roll in, Amari Cooper remains quiet, humble and destined for greatness
His teammates say he’s a silent leader and a hard-worker. Others say he’s the best receiver in the Southeastern Conference, maybe the entire country.
He speaks in succinct, measured sentences that don’t leave anything open to interpretation. He doesn’t deal in the hypothetical, and is strikingly literal in press conferences. He lets his play on the field do the talking, and it speaks with a megaphone.
Ending the regular season, Cooper leads the nation in receptions and receiving yards, has 115 catches for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns, is the Biletnikoff Award winner for the country’s top receiver and a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
He has surpassed every meaningful Alabama receiving record that exists, and he isn’t finished yet.
Cooper has waited his turn to become the next in line to star for the team, but those who saw him in high school knew he would get here eventually.
Former Miami Northwestern High School head coach Billy Rolle drove Cooper to school every day for three years, and could never get him to talk. After three years, Rolle said he maybe heard 100 words from him.
Each day on his way to school, Rolle would pass Cooper’s house in Coconut Grove, Fla. and pick him up. He did this as a favor to Cooper’s mom — a cousin of Rolle’s — and as a favor to Cooper, who made the decision to play for him.
After being kicked off the football team at Coral Gables High School, Cooper transferred to Northwestern following his freshman year, but didn’t immediately excel. He starred in track and field and basketball, but it took a few years to reach his full potential in football.
His former high school quarterback, current Minnesota Vikings starter Teddy Bridgewater — who was a senior when Cooper was a junior — said he had five future division one receivers on his team that year including Cooper, admitting their team was unfair to play.
Behind all that talent, Cooper mostly returned punts and got playing time near the end of blowouts, but to get noticed he just needed the opportunity to start.
“We knew that he was going to be one of the next great wide receivers from my high school,” Bridgewater said. “It was just trying to give him a chance with all the talent that we had.”
After his senior season, Cooper and Rolle went on a trip to football camps to advertise Cooper’s abilities. They went to Georgia, LSU and Florida, making a final stop at Alabama, without much fanfare. Rolle said Cooper wasn’t officially invited to the camp at Alabama, but the two of them were passing through on their way back to Miami and stopped in.
That particular camp had a few highly touted cornerbacks who were the main focus of the group, but that quickly changed when Cooper went deep, and kept going deep for long passes. Rolle said he ran the same route every time.
“Amari burnt those guys the whole day,” Rolle said. “He got out the car, put his shoes on, and lifted off.”
This impressed Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who recognized Cooper’s talents after he saw Cooper dominating these supposedly great high school corners.
“We’ve had some good receivers that have been in our camps over the years,” Saban said. “I think he may have been the most impressive to me in terms of his ability, his ability to change direction and get out of a break, the quickness, the acceleration, the speed, good hands, hard worker.
“I walked away from that camp saying, ‘This guy may be the best receiver we’ve ever had.”
Alabama football under Saban has typically revolved around a slow, methodical power running game and a stout defense. In years past, everyone in the stadium knew Alabama was going to run the ball, usually to repeated success.
This season, with new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, Alabama still has the ability to run, but the success of the offense relies on passes to Cooper. Everyone knows the ball is going to Cooper, and most of the time he catches it.
He was always a good player — especially his freshman year when he had 1,000 yards receiving — but the matchups and maneuvering Kiffin uses to highlight Cooper have led to this season’s drastic improvement.
“I have to give a lot of credit to Coach Kiffin,” Cooper said. “He’s a great offensive coordinator. He draws up plays to make sure his playmakers are in position to make plays.”
Cooper can’t be defended one-on-one, or by a zone. CBS Sports college football analyst and former NFL quarterback Gary Danielson says it’s actually harder to defend him with two guys.
On defending him, Rolle said, “You better send 10 guys.”
And if a team tries to remove him from the game, it leaves itself exposed to gains from Alabama’s other receivers or its run game.
“Once you put one person on him, you’re making a bad mistake,” Alabama safety Landon Collins said. “We don’t even do that in practice.”
Coaches have been trying and failing to stop him all season and all have marveled at his talent in their postgame press conferences. Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said Cooper is one of the best receivers to play college football. Auburn tried to treat him like he was just another receiver and paid dearly for it.
“Everything I’ve ever learned about sports is you create a mismatch,” Danielson said. “That mismatch could be anywhere — left tackle, center, rush linebacker — and Amari Cooper creates such a mismatch that it distorts the field. They’re basically playing 10 on 9 1/2 because Amari takes a player and a half off the field every play.”
Bridgewater and Rolle have only seen Cooper improve in college. Using his size and speed, he never had to be physical in high school. But in college, Alabama and its strength and conditioning program have developed him into a much more physical player, which Bridgewater says is now one of his best assets.
“In high school, he really didn’t lift weights much,” Bridgewater said. “He just went out there and played off of talent. But you put a guy like Amari in the weight room — and he’s a guy who I’m pretty sure can lift the entire weight room — he’s going to get much more physical.”
Cooper’s physicality has become a key part of his game. He can block for other receivers downfield and take a safety out during a run play. He isn’t the fastest player on the field, but his route-running, field awareness and footwork get him open so that he can stretch the field and make the big plays.
“He gets in and out of his routes as good as anybody I’ve seen,” Danielson said. “He understands splits and discipline and setting up his defensive back, leaving room for the quarterback to throw the ball on deep plays, and understands how to find the soft parts of the zone. These are a lot of things that are unteachable.”
Pair a strong work ethic with innate ability and a coaching staff that can accentuate that to its fullest, and it creates a great player.
“I think he’s with one of the best coaching staffs in college football,” Bridgewater said. “When you have great coaching and a player like Amari who doesn’t say anything, he’s like a sponge, he just listens and everything soaks in.
“He’s destined for greatness.”
Cooper already holds every receiving record in Alabama school history, and has at least one more game in crimson and white.
He is the school leader in career receptions, single-season receptions, single-game receptions, career receiving yards, single-season receiving yards, single-season receptions, career touchdown catches, single-season receiving touchdowns, and single-game touchdowns. Cooper also set the SEC record for receptions in a season, and broke the record for most catches in an SEC Championship game.
Cooper is fortunate to play in this era of offense-driven football, with a coordinator like Kiffin who knows how to get the ball to him, but his numbers speak for themselves.
He never asks for the ball; it’s not in his personality. He knows that sooner or later the ball will come his way, and if he is asked to be a decoy or a blocker in the run game, that’s what he’ll do.
“He’s an incredibly humble, hard-working person,” Danielson said. “There’s no ‘Me’ in Amari Cooper. He’s a great teammate. He’s very coachable, and I’ve never even seen him come close to pouting or wanting the football. Those are attributes that any team would love to have of any teammate, let alone a wide receiver.”
Danielson puts Cooper third on his list of the greatest college receivers he has covered as a broadcaster, only trailing NFL stars Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson and ranking above A.J. Green and former Alabama standout Julio Jones.
Compared to greats like Jones, Ozzie Newsome, and David Palmer, Cooper may be the best receiver in Alabama history. He already is statistically, and with the College Football Playoff coming in three weeks, he will have more chances to solidify his place in the pantheon of Alabama football.
“Amari is not worthy of comparing him to anybody else,” Saban said. “He is Amari Cooper.”