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Future No. 1 pick? Forget the QB battle, it’s Amari Cooper’s offense now

Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper shakes a tackler during the Tide's victory over FAU
Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper shakes a tackler during the Tide’s victory over FAU

Forget the quarterback battle. The true point of interest two games into the season in Tuscaloosa is wide receiver Amari Cooper.

The first play of the game on Saturday was an end-around handoff to Cooper, which went for 20 yards and set the tone for the offensive display about to come. He then followed that with 13 catches for 189 yards, in spite of sitting the entire fourth quarter so the whole depth chart could get some reps.

The arrival of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has given a boost to the Tide’s offensive output in general. Alabama is currently ranked seventh in the country in total offense. But Kiffin has also put extra emphasis on getting the ball into Cooper’s hands as much as possible.

This is not uncommon for Kiffin, who fed the ball to USC wide receiver Marqise Lee enough times – some would argue too much – that he won the 2012 Biletnikoff Award given to the best receiver in the country. Lee finished that season with 112 catches and 1,680 receiving yards. Cooper could end up surpassing that this year.

“‘Coop’ has always been a really good player,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said in his Monday press conference. “I think he had a great offseason, I think he’s always had great work ethic, I think his maturity as a player sort of allows him to play through things that maybe used to affect him a little bit and that’s not happening much.”

Phenomenally talented and clearly healthier than he was in years past, Cooper also has the advantage of being comfortable running routes for both quarterbacks, which has been made possible by Alabama’s practice regimen.

“The way we’ve gone through this is we alternate receivers in practice quite a bit because we’re trying to get repetitions,” Saban said. “The first receivers don’t always go with the first quarterback, so they get plenty of practice with both quarterbacks.”

Quick screens and slants to Cooper have allowed whichever quarterback is under center to establish a rhythm and get their confidence up in a hurry. The bubble screen, while it is a Kiffin trademark, can’t work forever, but quarterback Blake Sims did attribute a portion of Cooper’s success to the higher tempo offense the Crimson Tide is running this season.

“When you think of Alabama, you don’t think of a fast-paced team,” Sims said. “It gives us a chance for players to get open quick and get the ball to our playmakers. When you’ve got playmakers like Amari Cooper…They do the job for you.”

Hampered by a foot injury last season, Cooper only caught 45 passes all year. Now two games into his Junior campaign, he leads the country in receptions with 25 and yards with 319.

He has been named by the Alabama coaching staff as one of the offensive players of the week for both games. Against FAU he tied D.J. Hall’s Alabama record for single game receptions at 13, and is averaging 12.5 receptions a game so far this season. (Could Kiffin really not have called another pass play on Saturday for him to break that record with 14 catches?) Cooper finished the game against FAU with 2,055 career receiving yards. He only needs 869 more to pass Hall’s 2,923 career yards and become Alabama’s all-time leading receiver.

He’s impressed opposing coaches as well. West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen said Cooper could be the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, and FAU head coach Charlie Partridge said he’s someone about whom defenses worry, which helps Alabama’s overall offense.

“He’s one of the best receivers in the country,” Partridge said after the game Saturday. “He’s someone that’s going to keep your hands full. He’s someone you have to account for, but as soon as you roll over and start to account for him then you’re starting to lighten the box. When you’re light in the box, you see they have tremendous running backs in the backfield.”

While Cooper’s offensive output has been immense, it’s come against two mostly subpar defenses, with one more coming up this week in Southern Miss., who lost to Mississippi State 49-0 two weeks ago. He’ll have to truly prove his dominance once the Crimson Tide reach the SEC portion of the schedule, and teams focus a sizable amount of their preparation on stopping him.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @Jonathan_Biles

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