Alabama receiver Amari Cooper blew past the defensive back on a deep post, and his offensive coordinator didn’t even wait until the ball was in the air to celebrate.
Lane Kiffin raised his hands on the sideline to signal a touchdown. A little early — but he was right.
“I guess he’s seen me do it,” Cooper said.
Much of the country has by now.
Cooper has become easily the biggest, most dangerous weapon in a program normally defined by tailbacks and defense, while leading the top-ranked Crimson Tide into a College Football Playoff matchup with No. 4 Ohio State and becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist. The award will be presented Saturday night.
Cooper streaked 39 yards for a touchdown midway through the third quarter to spark a comeback win over Auburn in the regular-season finale, just one of many plays that left the Tide celebrating and opponents dumbfounded.
Something no one — other than Kiffin, perhaps — could have seen coming: a Tide receiver producing 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns and setting a Southeastern Conference record with 115 receptions. He has demolished previous Alabama marks for yards and catches.
It turned into a perfect combination of Kiffin, Cooper and first-year starting quarterback Blake Sims.
Tailbacks T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry had to take a backseat to the passing game, at least by Alabama standards.
Cooper has even trumped the numbers produced by the Atlanta Falcons’ Julio Jones, the Tide’s last superstar receiver. Cooper ranks second nationally in both yards receiving and catches per game.
Praised by coach Nick Saban and teammates for his work ethic, Cooper has three 200-yard receiving performances this season. Tide receivers collectively had only produced two coming into the season.
“To do what he does every Saturday is impressive, man,” Alabama tight end O.J. Howard said. “We’re like, ‘Wow.’ We knew he could do it, but he’s doing more. So that’s impressive. Without Coop I don’t know where we’d be right now.”
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer didn’t need to dive too deep into film study to proclaim Cooper the nation’s biggest downfield threat and “one of the best receivers ever to play college football.”
Cooper had four catches and a rush on Alabama’s opening drive for a touchdown in Saturday’s 42-13 victory over No. 16 Missouri in the SEC title game.
Even when teams know the ball is likely to be delivered to Cooper, they’ve struggled to keep it away from him.
Alabama’s normal penchant for smash-mouth football, plus experienced receivers such as Christion Jones and DeAndrew White, have created headaches for defenses trying to figure out how to cover Cooper.
Double team? Man to man? Or some other, more creative method? Alabama offensive tackle Austin Shepherd has his own idea for covering Cooper.
“I’d have the whole defense on him,” Shepherd said.
HE’LL WIN VOTES FOR: Cooper was unstoppable in the Iron Bowl to end the regular season on a huge stage. He had 13 catches for 224 yards and touchdowns of 17, 39 and 75 yards. Then he set an SEC championship game record with 12 catches against Missouri, posting 10 by halftime.
BUT HE’LL LOSE THEM BECAUSE: Desmond Howard (1991) and Tim Brown (1987) are the only wide receivers to win a Heisman. Unlike Cooper, both those winners also were stars in the return game. Cooper was only shut down once, when Arkansas held him to two catches for 22 yards, but like any receiver he had games in which he didn’t put up eye-catching numbers.
NFL PROSPECTS: Cooper, a junior, is widely regarded as the top receiver in the draft if he opts to turn pro. He is projected as a top five pick in mock drafts.