Alabama’s Amari Cooper has speed, skills to attack Notre Dame’s defense

Michelle Green didn’t have tickets for the Southeastern Conference championship game last month in Atlanta, but her living room in Liberty City was almost as tense as the Georgia Dome was when Alabama was trailing Georgia late in the fourth quarter.

“For me, it was a nerve-racking game,” said Green, the mother of Crimson Tide leading receiver Amari Cooper. “I was praying and going to the bathroom every other minute. My daughter, Aspen, said, ‘Mom, settle down. I bet you Amari makes a touchdown before this game is over with.’ ”

Moments later, Green’s “baby boy” came through, hauling in the game-winning, 45-yard touchdown pass from quarterback AJ McCarron, arguably the biggest offensive play in the Crimson Tide’s season to date. While half the Georgia Dome erupted into “the loudest cheers I’ve ever heard in my life,” Cooper said Saturday, his mom and sisters shed happy tears.

“We were jumping for joy,” said Green, a mother of five who also cares for her two teenage nephews. “What a moment.”

Six members of Cooper’s family — Green, her brother, her daughters Aspen and Ashley and two nephews — plan to enjoy what could be the freshman’s next big moment in person Monday night when the second-ranked Crimson Tide (12-1) take on No. 1-ranked Notre Dame (12-0) at Sun Life Stadium in the BCS National Championship Game.

Cooper, who grew up in Coconut Grove running track before becoming an Under Armour All-American receiver at Miami Northwestern High in 2011, still looks like a baby-faced freshman (he turns 19 on June 17), but his ability to stretch the field and make leaping catches could prove vital to Alabama’s title hopes.

With an Irish front seven led by the defensive player of the year in Manti Te’o — a group that led the nation in scoring defense, ranked fourth in run defense and was downright nasty in the red zone — Cooper (6-1, 198) could be called upon to be the difference maker in the passing game.

High praise

“To me, Alabama is not here without Amari Cooper,” ESPN analyst David Pollack said.

“They’re not in this championship game without that guy. He is the next Julio Jones. He’s that good. He’s explosive. He knows how to jump up and get the football. He runs good, instinctive routes. He’s that guy that really makes it difficult to crowd up and start cheating up in the run game. If I’m Notre Dame, no other guy on that team scares me going deep. When Notre Dame blitzes, they better have help over the top because Amari Cooper is going to run by everybody.”

Sprinting past the competition, his mother said, has never been a problem for Cooper. Born the last of five children, his mom enrolled him in track at a young age. At first, Green said, Cooper didn’t even want to play football, “but he quickly fell in love” and became a terror on the Pop Warner circuit in Coconut Grove.

After the family moved to Liberty City so Green could take in her nephews, Cooper began to star at Northwestern, developing into a favorite target of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the Big East’s Offensive Player of the Year and the MVP for Louisville in Wednesday night’s Sugar Bowl win over the Gators.

“Teddy and I talked [Friday]," Cooper said as he sat and fielded questions from reporters for about an hour during Media Day at Sun Life Stadium. “He said just go out there and do what I got to do. I’ve been dominating all season, just do what you do.”

At one point, Bridgewater and Cooper both dreamed of starring for the hometown Hurricanes. But as UM flopped and coaching changes took place, those plans never panned out.

Alabama is grateful. Tabbed the seventh-best receiver in the country by by the time he graduated early and left Northwestern in January, Cooper became a quick study in Tuscaloosa. When teammate DeAndrew White went down with a season-ending injury in the fifth game of the year against Mississippi, it opened the door to Cooper for a starting job.

He has taken off with it. His 53 catches, 895 receiving yards and nine touchdowns are more than double anybody else’s stats on the roster. Even though he owns the freshman record for touchdowns and needs just 29 yards Monday night to tie Jones’ school rookie receiving record, he doesn’t think it’s a big deal.

Lofty goals

“I don’t think they’re real big records, honestly,” Cooper said. “They’re just freshman records.

“My goal was 1,200 yards. I felt as if I should have had a bigger season coming in. The first four games I wasn’t a starter. I expected to be a starter the whole year. I knew from the first day of practice I could be; it wasn’t that hard to me. It was like high school. If I was able to compete, get some playing time, I could show that.”

Former Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard, now an analyst for ESPN, said Cooper isn’t just one of the best freshmen in the country, but one of his favorite receivers — right up there with USC’s Marquise Lee and Robert Woods.

“He has the best foundation of any freshman receiver in the country right now,” Howard said. “He has Peter Warrick’s top and go, but is faster than Peter Warrick ever imagined he could be. He has great ability to go up and get the ball, catch it at it’s highest point. He can go full speed, stick his foot in the ground, make cuts, so he’s a very good route runner.”

Notre Dame knows it can’t completely take Cooper away, but the Irish would like to limit the number of big plays he makes. Of Cooper’s 53 catches this season, 36 went for first downs and 26 went for 15 yards or more.

“We can’t have any replays of that last catch he made,” said Notre Dame safety Matthias Farley, referring to Cooper’s SEC title game winner.

Green, who plans on wearing an Alabama T-shirt with her son’s No. 9 on it to Monday’s game, would love for Cooper to come through with a couple big plays again Monday. The one time she saw her son play this season in person, Cooper caught five passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns against Auburn.

“We had a great time,” Green said of the trip up to Tuscaloosa. “After the game, I was really amazed with so many people wanting his autograph. He was like a rock star. I’m like, ‘This is just Amari.’ ”

A few more big plays for the Crimson Tide on Monday night, and Cooper could become the unofficial prince of Alabama.

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