When it comes to the eye test, University of Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper looks the part more than ever this spring.
While he's always been impressive on the field, Cooper's obviously spent some serious time in the weight room since the Crimson Tide played in the Sugar Bowl. There's a noticeable difference in his upper body, and his weight is up near 210 pounds after being listed at 202 last season.
Earlier this month, he also participated in the the team's "junior" version of pro day, when players who could be available in next year's draft go through all the tests behind closed doors. The aim is not only to get acclimated to the drills but also indicate where improvement is required and help gauge progress.
Needless to say, Cooper's showing in the 40 was a little more than eye-popping.
“On one clock, it was a 4.31 (seconds)," he said. "It was my first 40: 4.31, 4.35 and 4.38.”
|Amari Cooper vs. Julio Jones|
|University of Alabama statistics|
To help put that into perspective, during the National Football League's combine last month in Indianapolis, only one wide receiver ran in the 4.3 range, Oregon State's Brandin Cooks at 4.33. Marqise Lee, the former Southern California standout, whom so many are eager to compare Cooper to in terms of statistical potential, ran 4.52.
Cooper added that he thought he could run faster, which should be a very scary thought for every Alabama opponent on the 2014 schedule.
“When I’m healthy I don’t think anyone can guard me,” Cooper had said at the Sugar Bowl, along with: “I think I can be great if I do small things well.”
He's obviously already pretty good.
As a freshman in 2012, Cooper became just the fourth player in Alabama history to record a 1,000-yard receiving season, joining DJ Hall (who did it twice), David Palmer and Julio Jones. He also broke the Crimson Tide single-season record for touchdown receptions of 11 that had stood for 62 years (Al Lary with 10 in 1950).
Yet last year, Cooper wasn't considered one of the top wide receivers in the Southeastern Conference, never mind nation. His 3.75 receptions per game didn't rank among the league's leaders, while the 61.3- yard average was 12th. Consequently, when the time came for the postseason accolades, nearly all went to Texas A&M's Mike Evans and Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews.
Cooper, of course, was hobbled from the start, sustaining a preseason heel injury followed by turf toe on the other foot, and then he experienced a midseason sprained MCL on a busted screen pass. After having five 100-yard games as a freshman, he didn't top the century mark until the regular-season finale against Auburn.
With he and DeAndrew White becoming the first receiver tandem in Alabama history to record simultaneous 100-yard performances in a bowl, 299 of Cooper's 736 receiving yards last season were during his final two games, ironically both losses. That works out to 40.6 percent.
Now he no longer has AJ McCarron throwing to him, and Lane Kiffin has signed on as offensive coordinator, which to many means even more uncertainly about what kind of numbers Cooper could post as a junior.
Critics also point out that the wide receiver position hasn't seen that much success since Nick Saban arrived in 2007, and of the 30 former Alabama players who were on NFL rosters at the start of last season, just one was a wideout, Jones.
Yet Saban's track record before Alabama was exemplary. At Michigan State, Muhsin Muhammad had his breakthrough year in 1995, and even though Plaxico Burress played just two seasons with the Spartans, he tallied 131 receptions, 2,155 yards and 20 touchdowns before being the Steelers' eighth overall selection in the 2000 draft.
At LSU he had Josh Reed, who originally singed as tailback only to catch 94 passes for 1,740 yards his junior season to win the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver. Other Tigers standouts included Michael Clayton, Dwayne Bowe, Skyler Green and Devery Henderson.
"About halfway through his freshman year, he really became an outstanding player," Saban said about Cooper. "He got very confident in what he was doing. Last year I thought he had a very good year, especially the second half of the year. So far this spring, he's been phenomenal in the offseason program as well as in the first three practices that we've had.
"Obviously he's a guy that we want to get the ball to as many times as we can. Lane will do a really good job of getting the ball in the playmakers' hands. I think between the backs that we have and the receivers that we have, and Coop's history of being a very consistent performer, I would think that he'll have an outstanding year."
If he does, Cooper will set the standard for all Alabama wide receivers.
Although DJ Hall's career record of 194 receptions (2004-2007) may be out of reach, Cooper's 105 already top Ozzie Newsome and Palmer, and he needs 75 more to be second ahead of Jones.
Meanwhile, Cooper needs 1,160 yards to set the program record for receiving yards (Hall with 2,923), and he needs just four touchdown catches to beat Dennis Homan's record of 18 (1965-1967).
Those numbers are more than obtainable should Cooper stay healthy in 2014.
“Stay focus and finish," he said. "Those are the two main things coach has been emphasizing.”
Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.