TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When Chris Black and Amari Cooper first stepped foot on the University of Alabama campus in January, there was already an air of anticipation. The much-heralded future of the passing game had arrived at the Capstone, and with it, a hope of solving the lack of a big-play threat on offense missing since the departure of Julio Jones.
Black and Cooper, both top-10 receivers coming out of high school, have been a boon to the Crimson Tide faithful yearning for a more explosive offense. With AJ McCarron fully entrenched at quarterback, Trent Richardson off to the NFL and new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier tugging at the reins, there’s a buzz over the new direction of the Alabama offense.
Chances are little will change in terms of philosophy under coach Nick Saban. The sixth-year coach preaches balance on offense and adheres to no niche system on offense, just what he calls simply the “Alabama offense.”
While the offensive framework may not be altered much under a new coordinator, the tools at Nussmeier’s disposal have changed. A lackluster group of pass-catchers from 2011 has been replaced by a youthful, energetic crop of receivers built on speed.
Junior wide out Kenny Bell said the new receiving corps is not lacking in talent. Even though the younger players are learning on the fly, that doesn’t mean the competition has suffered in the spring.
“It's very high,” Bell said of the level of opposition at receiver. “Everybody is competing to get that spot. Everybody is going out there, pushing each other, making each other work hard. If we see one slack, we pick each other up.”
Bell was especially complimentary of Black and Cooper, praising their work ethic and willingness to ask questions of more veteran receivers like himself and fellow junior Kevin Norwood.
“They're going to be really good receivers,” Bell said. “They've been coming to practice working hard every day. They come to us and ask questions when they need it. They're just competing.”
Norwood, who said he’s added on 10 pounds in the offseason and is playing at flanker this spring, seconded Bell’s assessment.
“There’s always a competition every day at practice,” Norwood said. “We have a lot of new receivers beginning to know the program and learning routes.”
While it’s unclear who has the upper hand at receiver through three weeks of spring practice, there’s little doubt Cooper and Black are capable of pushing the incumbents.
Black is a sleek, fast receiver in the mold of Marquis Maze. He shows off excellent body control, contorting to grab errant passes, all the while exhibiting the strong hands to hold onto the ball in traffic.
Cooper, a couple of inches taller than his freshman counterpart at 6-foot-1, is more of the red-zone threat. His ability to out-jump corners inside the 20-yard line could be huge in the development of McCarron. Last season, tight end Brad Smelley led the team with four touchdowns grabs, due largely to his ability to use size to create separation. Alabama’s leading receiver in terms of catches, Marquis Maze, was only 5-foot-10 and had difficulty getting space in the red zone, hauling in just one touchdown to 56 catches.
With some fresh blood injected into the offense, look for McCarron to incorporate his new weapons on the edge. For now, though, the junior quarterback is just trying to build a rapport with his first-year receivers, maximizing their time together in the spring before fall hits and the urgency ratchets up.
“You definitely start building it now,” McCarron said of the chemistry between quarterback and receiver. “Even on our off-days like when we were doing the fourth-quarter (offseason) program, myself and five or six receivers would go out and run routes to get out timing down.
“It definitely starts now.”
Robert Lester, the Tide’s senior safety, said he’s noticed a confidence in McCarron this spring with him no longer embroiled in a quarterback battle with Phillip Sims. Lester said he’s watched McCarron take the younger receivers under his wing and develop the camaraderie that’s needed between the two.
“He’s building relationships with the younger receivers and they trust him, and that’s a great combination for those two positions to have,” Lester said. “The offense is clicking. They are looking good.”
Lester, who is the only starter returning from last year’s secondary that allowed the fewest passing yards in the country, said Black and Cooper have stood out in the spring, rising to the challenge of facing one of the most talented defenses in the SEC.
“Two guys who have impressed me a lot are Chris Black and Amari Cooper,” Lester said. “They are terrific athletes and they are showing it on the field. They are getting after it. They are competing against the ones (first team) and making plays against the ones. Us having a good defense and them being that young and coming in and making plays against us says a lot.”
Meanwhile, Saban is tempering his expectations when it comes to the rookie duo.
“I think Amari Cooper and Chris Black have shown good ability,” Saban said. “Any time you have freshmen it's just a matter if those guys are going to be able to play with the consistency, persevere, continue to improve, not get frustrated, not be up and down because they don't have the maturity to sustain things. I think that will be key to how those guys will develop but I do think both those guys can make a contribution next year.”