TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — No joke, an Alabama player is leading the nation in receiving.
Amari Cooper has produced the numbers of touches and yards normally reserved for the third-ranked Crimson Tide’s running backs through two games, proving the biggest beneficiary of new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s system and a quarterback battle.
Cooper already has 25 catches for 319 yards — tops nationally on both counts — for ground-and-pound Alabama.
But makes the numbers even more impressive is the Crimson Tide seem to turn out star runners on a factory assembly line, don’t have an experienced quarterback and actually huddles before most plays.
“It’s a testimony to how hard he worked in the offseason,” Tide tight end Brian Vogler said. “Some guys want to be good, but he wants to be great. He wants to be the best ever to come through here. You have to admire that.”
Cooper has been the favored target for both starting quarterback contenders Blake Sims and Jake Coker going into Saturday’s game against Southern Mississippi. Through screens and other short passes and downfield throws alike, both have turned to Cooper repeatedly.
It’s not a bad way to boost their numbers, after all.
Cooper had 12 catches against West Virginia and tied the school record with 13 against Florida Atlantic, showing off both his hands and his playmaking ability once the ball is in his hands. He caught a 52-yarder from Sims in the FAU game and a 43-yarder from Coker while also running for a 20-yard gain.
Cooper still wasn’t quite satisfied.
“I don’t think the receptions matter that much, it’s what you do with the receptions,” he said after the Florida Atlantic game. “And I don’t think I got everything out of the receptions that I wanted.”
Putting Cooper’s early numbers in perspective:
• He has more catches than 14 FBS teams that have also played two games have completions, including fellow Southeastern Conference members LSU (20) and Vanderbilt (22).
• The Tide’s leading rusher, T.J. Yeldon, has only five more carries than Cooper has catches. Receiver DeAndrew White has just six catches for 73 yards after missing the Florida Atlantic game with a shoulder injury.
• Cooper didn’t make his 25th catch until Alabama’s ninth game — and his eighth — last season, partly because of nagging injuries. Combining his performances against Auburn and Oklahoma to end last season, he has 40 catches for 618 yards in the past four games. His numbers in 12 games last season: 45 catches, 736 yards.
— Alabama TE Brian Vogler
“He’s always had great ability,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “He’s really played a lot of really, really good football with us. I think the biggest difference is he’s matured in terms of his ability to overcome bad plays and never really show any frustration and just be able to go on to the next play and continue to play well.
“That’s really effectively made him a much more successful player, because his consistency in performance is much, much better because of that.”
Kiffin’s presence hasn’t hurt. The former Southern California head coach and offensive coordinator had two USC receivers with 100-yard seasons. Marqise Lee had 118 catches for 1,721 yards in 2012 and Robert Woods had an 111-catch, 1,292-yard season in 2011.
Cooper’s numbers could tail off some if Alabama leans more toward running or spreading the ball around to other receivers once the quarterback matter is settled.
Still, Cooper is easily on target to break Julio Jones’ single-season school records for receptions (78) and yards (1,133). He’s only two touchdown catches away from the career mark of 18 set by Dennis Homan from 1965-67.
“Just an amazing athlete,” said Austin Shepherd, Alabama’s 320-pound right tackle. “I wish I could be like that but I’m too big. He just makes people miss all the time. Super fast. He’s an unbelievable player.”
• College football tickets
— Alabama Football (@AlabamaFTBL) September 7, 2014