This is my print story for today’s editions:
TUSCALOOSA, Alabama — Alabama had to throw to beat LSU for the national title a year ago, and if it worked once, maybe it can work again.
Like LSU last year, Notre Dame brings one of the nation’s top run defenses into the BCS National Championship Game, which means Alabama’s hopes of winning the crown again could rest on its passing game. That will put the spotlight squarely on one of the Tide’s youngest players.
True freshman wide receiver Amari Cooper.
He leads Alabama in receptions (53), receiving yards (895) and receiving touchdowns (nine). All those figures were more than twice as many as the second-place pass-catcher.
When Alabama beat Georgia 32-28 in the SEC Championship Game, the Tide did it with a power run game. But Cooper still caught eight of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron‘s 13 pass completions and gained 128 of the Tide’s 162 passing yards.
Because Cooper is only a freshman, Alabama head coach Nick Saban doesn’t allow him to speak to reporters at the regular weekly news conferences. But Cooper’s teammates seem more than willing to speak for him.
“He’s actually gotten better from summertime,” said Alabama junior receiver Kevin Norwood, who has 26 catches for 395 yards this year. “He knows what to do, how to do it, and why to do it, and the coaches love that about him. One thing I love about him is he’s very dependable. He’s there at the right time. AJ loves him. We all love him. He’s just a good receiver.”
Even Saban raves about him, which he sometimes is reluctant to do when discussing a young player.
“He does attack the ball when he goes up for the ball,” Saban said. “He’s made several catches this year where he’s gone up and made some outstanding plays by doing that. Guys that have great ball judgment, obviously, which is very important for receivers and defensive backs, guys that have to play the ball, if they have good ball judgment are going to be able to do that more effectively.
“If a guy doesn’t have great ball judgment, you probably can’t teach it. You might improve it a little bit. But I think it’s a matter of having an aggressive attitude about going after the ball.”
Cooper showed his aggressiveness early against Georgia. Alabama had the ball on its own 18, and McCarron threw deep to Cooper, who fought his way to the catch and gained 44 yards. The drive ended with an interception in the end zone.
“Too many guys are too casual in terms of waiting for the ball to come down,” Saban said. “They’ve got more confidence in catching it around their body rather than extending for the ball and catching it with their hands. That’s something you always want receivers to do. Amari Cooper is really pretty natural doing that, and very confident in doing that.”
If Cooper needs to improve in any area, it’s running his routes more consistently. Even so, McCarron said young players like him deserve the chance to make some mistakes.
“Smart player. Makes plays,” McCarron said. “Runs really good routes at times, but I think we can all help him get better in certain areas, and help each other get better. The kid’s a freshman. He’s going to make mistakes, but he’s a freak out there out wide.”