It was an offseason of transition in Tuscaloosa.
Quarterback AJ McCarron—he of two national title rings and only four losses in three years as the starter—exhausted his eligibility after the 2014 Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma, and thus began the first quarterback battle in Tuscaloosa since 2011. That battle is being waged with new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin—the former USC and Tennessee head coach and lightning rod for controversy—at the helm of the offense.
One player who is vital in bridging the gap this offseason was junior wide receiver Amari Cooper.
|Amari Cooper Career Stats|
The preseason first-team All-SEC star from Miami has 1,736 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns over his first two seasons in Tuscaloosa, and he has become more of a mouthpiece for his head coach this offseason.
"I've become a better leader, just listening to the things that coach [Nick] Saban tells us," Cooper said in the Radio/Internet room at SEC Media Days. "Every time he talks, you want to listen because he knows what he's talking about. The things he tells me, I can tell my teammates and we can stay positive and have that winning mentality."
While some faces change, Cooper is acting as the reinforcement for the coaching staff this summer. Coaches get 10 hours per week of contact, which is a welcomed change, but that's still minimal in the grand scheme of things. He is the glue.
That's good for Cooper and Alabama, because considering the holes on the roster and the switch to Kiffin's scheme, it was his responsibility as a veteran to take the role regardless of whether he wanted it.
While Kiffin adjusts to the personnel and the quarterback battle continues with the fresh face of Jacob Coker joining the mix this summer, it was up to Cooper to keep the team headed in the right direction. That means more of a role in organizing offseason workouts, which included work with Coker, as AL.com's Michael Casagrande pointed out.
His mindset has switched from focusing on personal goals immediately following the 42-14 win over Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game after the 2012 season, to focusing on team-oriented goals heading into the 2014 campaign.
"I don't ever say I want to get so many yards or anything like that," Cooper said at Media Days, according to Andrew Gribble of AL.com. "I just want to win and be the best teammate and do the best I can do."
Cooper is the heart and soul of this year's Crimson Tide.
He already was one of the focal points opposing defenses had to key on from a schematic standpoint, and now he's embraced more of a leadership role off the field as Alabama transitions to a new quarterback and coordinator.
His off-the-field success is already being felt, and his on-field contributions are critical for the Crimson Tide.
After a disappointing season (by his own standards) as a sophomore, Cooper needs to get in sync with his quarterback (or quarterbacks) in a hurry, because he's likely to be an even bigger focal point with Kiffin calling the shots.
Already a weapon in the screen game and off play action, Cooper will be more versatile in this year's offense, according to Marc Torrence, Bleacher Report's Alabama lead writer.
“Coach Kiffin calls plays based on matchups and what he sees,” Cooper said this spring. “Like I said before, it's a simple offense. If he sees they are in man-to-man coverage and I have a hitch route, it converts if he's close to me. We are going to throw a little fade route and make something out of it.”
Alabama is loaded at wide receiver, but Cooper playing up to his potential will make the whole offense tick. It will allow the other stars like Christion Jones, DeAndrew White, Robert Foster and tight end O.J. Howard to find themselves in favorable matchups.
Cooper is the star on the field and the leader off of it. His resurgence is key for the 2014 Crimson Tide, and that's already being felt as they attempt to take back the SEC West throne.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings are courtesy of 247Sports, and all stats are courtesy of ESPN.com.