While No. 1 Alabama looked like world beaters against Tennessee, two true freshmen are grabbing all of the headlines after the Crimson Tide’s 44-13 clobbering of the Volunteers on Saturday.
Running back T.J. Yeldon and wide receiver Amari Cooper have each had big games this season, but finally put their talents on display on the same stage in front of 102,455 fans at Neyland Stadium.
The young stars for Alabama showed fans and opponents why Alabama is more than just a defensive juggernaut. It also provided a glimpse of how good Alabama can be when these two actually become seasoned and figure the game out.
The Alabama (7-0, 4-0 SEC) offense steam rolled Tennessee (3-4, 0-4 SEC) for 539 total yards, in large part due to the play of Yeldon and Cooper.
Yeldon exploded on the scene against Michigan, rushing for 111 yards and a touchdown, becoming the first true freshman to rush for over 100 yards in his debut.
His numbers declined in the coming weeks, but he hit his stride against at Missouri with 144 yards and two touchdowns.
The 6-foot-2, 216 pound Daphne, Ala. native is second on the team in rushing with 565 and six touchdowns. He has gone over 100 yards in consecutive games and Saturday marked the third time this season.
He piled up 129 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries for an otherworldly average of 8.6 yards a carry against the shaky Volunteer defense.
Yeldon’s running style is a blend of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. He has the wiggle necessary to make defenders miss and not take any big hits like Ingram. He also has the power and deceptive speed that Richardson displayed during his career at Alabama.
On Alabama’s second scoring drive, Yeldon touched the ball every play, gaining 32 yards and punching it in from a yard out for the touchdown. Yeldon has shown he can be a work horse for the Tide if needed.
“He’s awesome and so fun to watch,” center Barrett Jones said. “When he gets the ball in space, he’s extremely dangerous.”
Cooper’s explosive, big play ability was expected. Saban raved about the 6-foot-1, 198 pound Miami, Fla. native throughout spring practice, calling him one of the young guys who showed ability to make plays.
But his talents were put on display for fans and the rest of the college football world against Ole Miss when he caught eight passes for 84 yards and two touchdowns. Now, Cooper is leading the team in receiving with 425 yards and five touchdowns.
“He is showing everybody what I have been seeing since the offseason,” tight end Michael Williams said. “He can be one of the greatest. You see it. You can see the talent that he has.”
Cooper’s play has drawn comparisons to Julio Jones, who also burst onto the scene as a true freshman. Like Jones, Cooper has the ability to make catches in traffic and fend off defenders for chunks of yards after the catch.
Cooper caught seven passes for two touchdowns and a career-high 162 yards, setting a school record for the most receiving yards by a freshman. He also became the fourth consecutive Alabama receiver to have a 100 yard game at Tennessee. Cooper had three catches for 20 plus yards, including a long of 54 yards.
“He’s a really explosive receiver and we need one of those to emerge,” center Barrett Jones said. “He’s done a great job of filling that role. Even after he catches the ball, he’s extremely dangerous.”
Cooper scored the first points of the game on a 23-yard strike from quarterback AJ McCarron. His second touchdown came in the third quarter on a 42-yard bomb with two defenders draped all over him.
The only thing in Neyland Stadium that could stop Cooper were the referee penalty flags, which called back one of his touchdowns on an illegal formation by Alabama.
Although no one will admit it, Cooper has become McCarron’s favorite target the same way Julio Jones was for John Parker Wilson and Greg McElroy. McCarron and Cooper have hooked up 28 times, while no other Tide receiver has more than 15 receptions.
Like Saban, McCarron isn’t surprised by Cooper’s play.
“He can be as good as he wants to be,” said McCarron, who had a career-high 306 passing yards and tied his career-high with four touchdown passes. “As long as he keeps working and puts forth the effort, the sky is the limit for that kid.”