SEC: Virginia Tech football

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Amari Cooper is nonchalant about most things. Still just a fresh-faced sophomore, it's hard to tell whether the enormity of his young career, the one that took off like a rocket last season and ended with consensus All-American honors, has sunk in. Has he felt the impact he's had the Tide? Or the SEC?

Alabama hasn't had a playmaker at wide receiver like him since Julio Jones. He's not as physically intimidating or as wildly popular, but his impact is approaching that of Jones. Cooper set nearly every rookie receiving record at Alabama last season, passing his dreadlocked predecessor and others in the process. And he did all that without starting a game until Week 6.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper, Damian Swann
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsThe go-ahead score against Georgia in the SEC title game, was one of many big plays for Amari Cooper during his 11-score freshman season at Alabama.
"My life hasn't changed," Cooper told reporters on Wednesday night, less than 72 hours removed from the season opener against Virginia Tech in Atlanta. Last December he was there and he was anything but understated when he spiked his foot into the ground to help sell a play-action pass in the fourth quarter. Georgia's Damian Swann nearly fell down when Cooper broke left, and 45 yards later Cooper was in the end zone with the game-winning score to give the Tide the SEC Championship. "On the football field I just try to get better every day, so not much changed there either."

At the end of his signature play in the Georgia Dome, Cooper didn't even break his stride to celebrate. He put one hand up and barely recognized the crowd on his jog back to the sidelines. Meanwhile, quarterback AJ McCarron pumped his fist and waved his arms like a wild man all the way to the back of the end zone.

Nothing seems too big for Cooper; no moment, no situation. Whether it's a defense trying to beat him up in man coverage -- "They're saying their guys is better than you" -- or the pressure of living up to the past -- "I don't feel like I did a whole lot last year" -- there doesn’t seem to be an ounce of stress on his shoulders.

His only expectation: "To have a better year than last year."

"Now I'll be starting the first game this year," he continued. "I didn't start the first game last year. We'll see if I have a better year than last year."

Make no mistake, though, Cooper is confident in his abilities. During his first time speaking with the media in Tuscaloosa this spring, he slipped up and said he only had two years left in school, meaning he intends to enter the NFL draft as an underclassman. The sports information director on hand quickly corrected him and Cooper added "at least" a second too late.

"He can be as great as he wants to be," former UA cornerback Dee Milliner said last October, before the rest of the world had caught on to Alabama's rookie phenom. "He can be one of the greatest receivers we’ve had at Alabama. He does a lot of things you really don’t see freshmen do with his speed, his hands, and his quickness that he got. He can be one of the great receivers in years to come."

Doug Nussmeier didn't hesitate to call Cooper one of the game’s best earlier this month. It wasn't just his 59 receptions, 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns that impressed the second-year offensive coordinator. Instead it was Cooper's savvy.

"Amari, and what he did, from where he started to his progression through the season, we felt that towards the end of the season, he was playing as good as anybody in the country at that position," Nussmeier said. "He continues to develop … he's still learning. He's really starting to focus on the little things that are going to take his game to the next level."

Up and down the roster there's respect for Cooper, who added 7 pounds and cut his 40-yard dash time from 4.4 seconds to 4.3 this offseason. Fellow wideout Kenny Bell marveled at Cooper's growth, saying he could be even more explosive this year. Junior tight end Brian Vogler said he "really loves the game," praising his hard work and dedication.

John Fulton has had to go up against Cooper countless times during practice. The senior cornerback said that some of the stuff Cooper does, Fulton has "no idea where he learned it from, but he's absolutely amazing."

"He has this thing he does off the line," Fulton said. "I'm kind of catching onto it now, but he's going to develop something else to mess with my head. He'll take two steps outside, shake inside, shake outside and then shake back inside for a slant and its under .5 seconds. It's so fast, you can't time it. It's crazy."

Defenders around the SEC understand. Coaches do too. Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer took a second to connect Cooper with the game film during a conference call on Monday, but when he did he compared him to a two-time, first-team All-American receiver in his conference.

"I know who he is," Beamer said. "In our league he reminds you of Sammie Watkins there at Clemson. A guy that's just athletic, can go. They've got a good group of wide receivers, but certainly Cooper is a guy who is hard … It's hard to cover that guy."
Frank Beamer and Nick SabanIcon SMI, Getty ImagesVirginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, the winningest active head coach in college football, has a lot of respect for Nick Saban's Alabama team.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban doesn't blush, he fumes. Ask the enigmatic, often high-handed coach of the Crimson Tide about being ranked No. 1 and you'll see his nostrils flair as he grips the podium in disdain. Polls, especially those done before the start of the season, are useless to him. He'll say politely that they appreciate the recognition, but that's merely a preamble to a sermon on their worthlessness. The rest of college football might see his team as the front-runner to reach the national championship, but he sees a team that's yet to accomplish a single thing.

"You can make any kind of predictions that you want about what you think you have or what you think you are," Saban said, "but until you actually go and play a game and see how your team's going to respond [you don't know.]"

Frank Beamer sees it another way. He has watched the tape and studied Alabama's roster in preparation for Saturday's season opener in Atlanta. He knows all about AJ McCarron, Amari Cooper and the Tide's stifling defense, led by All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley. And what he's seen in film study is a team that's fully justified of its position atop the polls.

"They've just got it all," Virginia Tech's veteran head coach told reporters, repeatedly calling Alabama the No. 1 team in the country. "They do everything well."

It could have been a classic coaching maneuver, praising the opponent into a false sense of security, but Beamer sounded downright resigned to defeat during a roughly 20-minute teleconference on Monday. He was asked whether he had found any area of Alabama's game he felt the Hokies could exploit, and he said there was none to be had, going so far as to praise Alabama's punter, Cody Mandell, rattling off his 44.3 yards per punt average from a season ago.

"I don't think they have a weakness," he explained. "They're just as solid as the day is long."

Saban and Beamer aren't new to this song and dance. With 80 years of coaching experience between them, they know how to play to expectations. The Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game means something different to each team. For Alabama, the stakes are high. It could either be the first step or the fatal fall in the Tide's run toward the championship. For Virginia Tech, the stakes are far less dramatic. The goal is to win, but the more realistic venture is to simply improve as a football team.

"Sometimes when you have runaway wins to start the season, you don't really find what you need to work on or sometimes that's not as clear," Beamer said. "I think playing a team like Alabama, you become a better football team. We understand what a task it is to go in there and beat Alabama. But it's not often that you get a chance to play the best team in the country, the number one team in the country. I think there's plusses, it's certainly a challenge and we know what kind of game we have to play to have a chance."

Is it fair to call the Hokies underdogs? Beamer thinks so.

"I think facts are facts," he said. "We are. I don't think you'll see many people, if any, picking us."

Even with his team favored by three touchdowns, Saban isn't sleeping on Virginia Tech. Always the cynic, he's concerned about how some of his younger players will perform and how the Tide's rebuilt offensive line will play together in its first meaningful action. Alabama lost 10 starters from a year ago, and there are 11 true freshmen on the two-deep depth chart. The ratio is enough to give any coach chills.

"I'm not disappointed in the way we've prepared and the way we've practiced, the things we've done," Saban said. "I'm anxious to see how it all comes together when we play a game."

The seventh-year head coach of the Crimson Tide called Hokies' quarterback Logan Thomas "an outstanding player" that will be "a big challenge for our defense." He went on to praise both the their defense and special teams, saying the first-team defense looked "dominant at times" during their spring game. In the end, though, Saban kept coming back to Virginia Tech's head coach, a man who has the most wins of any current coach in college football.

"I've known Frank for a long time," Saban said. "I think he's certainly a class guy that's a credit to college football in everything that he does, from how he represents our game with a lot of class and integrity and the outstanding job he's done as a coach in terms of the product that he's put on the field on a consistent basis over a long period of time.

"I mean, 27 years is a long to be someplace and to have the consistent success that he's had over time, you have to have a tremendous amount of respect for that."

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