Opinion: Cooper gives Tide a good pair of hands

This is my column for today’s print editions:

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Amari Cooper caught only 33 passes as a high school senior in Miami, and it’s hard to imagine a team having a weapon like him and not using him more than that.

Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper (9) and teammate Kenny Bell (7) celebrate a touchdown. (AP photo by Wade Payne)

He is proving over and over at Alabama that the more you throw to him, the more plays he’ll make — even though he’s just a true freshman. Maybe more true talent than true freshman.

In Saturday’s 44-13 win over undermanned, out-gunned Tennessee team, Cooper caught seven passes for 162 yards and a pair of touchdowns, adding big numbers to what’s becoming a big year. He leads Alabama in catches (28), yards (425) and receiving touchdowns (five).

If you don’t think that’s a big deal, consider this: In the past 40 years, only three freshmen have led Alabama in receiving. All three made it in the NFL: Ozzie Newsome (1974), David Palmer (1993) and Julio Jones (2008). Although they played at different times in different offenses with different quarterbacks, none of those guys had a game as freshmen that was as productive receiving-wise as Cooper did Saturday.

Combine that with T.J. Yeldon’s big rushing night, and Alabama got 291 total yards and four of its six touchdowns from true freshmen. They were in seventh grade the last time the free-falling Tennessee football program scored a win over Alabama.

Cooper’s best play didn’t even count. On third-and-14 at the UT 30, he caught a short pass from McCarron, slipped by some poor Tennessee defender who was left grabbing air, and zipped down the sideline for a touchdown. Alabama got called for illegal formation, bringing it back.

There were enough other highlights, however. He had the 23-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. That’s when he slid into the end zone uncovered for a pass from AJ McCarron. Eddie Lacy and Kenny Bell were wide open on the play, too, but who can blame McCarron for going with the hot hand?

Cooper also had the 54-yard pass to set up another touchdown. And there was the 42-yard deep ball that McCarron floated to Cooper’s left. Cooper broke for it and made the catch, while the UT defensive back couldn’t keep up.

We would love to know what Cooper might say about his big night, but Tide coach Nick Saban doesn’t allow freshmen to talk to reporters.

You can check his Twitter account, but his posts sometimes tend to be cryptic. His last post Friday was this: “Much ado about nothing.” He didn’t say what he was talking about, but it certainly couldn’t have been himself.

He certainly seemed to be referencing himself with this one earlier in the month: “They say if you (are going to) choose to do one thing then you better be able to do it well.”

The funny thing is he wasn’t supposed to be Alabama’s best receiver this year. He wasn’t even supposed to be Alabama’s best freshman receiver. Chris Black, who hurt his shoulder in preseason practice, looked like he had the best shot at breaking out.

Cooper is fast but not rocket fast. He’s big (6-foot-1, 198 pounds) but not as imposing as Jones was. He makes plays, however.

Alabama’s receivers as a whole weren’t supposed to be that strong this year, and as the Crimson Tide meets better teams on its schedule, we probably will have an easier time shining a light on their weaknesses.

But for now, Alabama has a bright light in Cooper. Even on the road in a big rivalry game, he didn’t blink, bobble or trip.

Bigger stages are coming. There is a trip to LSU, the Iron Bowl against Auburn and a possible appearances in the SEC Championship Game. But he looks ready. He doesn’t look like a freshman.

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