Each week of the college football season NCAA.com will take a look at the most impressive individual performances. Some weeks it may be one player who stands head and shoulders above everyone else. This week, Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper jumped into the top three.
Before I get to Mr. Cooper, I have a question: Why do we undervalue wide receivers how we do? Why do they never seem like the most important player on the field, especially when wide receivers can flip momentum and score quicker than any other player?
Is it because wide receivers depend on someone else to deliver them the ball? Whereas quarterbacks hand it off and send a running back on his way, wide receivers can’t function without a quarterback for the most part. But that doesn’t seem quite right. We all implicitly acknowledge WRs as the most dazzling, shiny toys on the field. Growing up, my friends and I idolized wide receivers like no other position because everyone understands wide receivers as the coolest players on the field at all times. (Well, them, and defensive backs with dreads. I recently had a conversation with my football childhood friend about how much we’d love Richard Sherman if we grew up now and how we’d have to hide that from our moms who would inevitably hate him. Moms don’t like trash-talkers.)
Anyway, people don’t generally associate cool with important in football. Basketball, yes, football, not so much. And wide receivers never seem as individually important as they are despite how visible they may be. As much as they might change a game, everyone has tacitly agreed not enough, or at least when it comes to Heisman voting. Of all the past winners, only two have been true wide receivers: Michigan’s Desmond Howard and Notre Dame’s Tim Brown. Then there’s Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers, who’s better classified as offensive weapon than wide receiver. But all three of those guys were equally praised, if not more so, for their electric return games than anything else.
I’m basically begging the question now: What does a wide receiver, who doesn’t play any other position, have to do to be considered the best player in college football?
I bring all this up because Amari Cooper vaulted himself from fringe player into top three candidate in the Heisman discussion due to his performance against Auburn Saturday (which, yes, was all sorts of cool). He caught 13 catches for 224 yards and three touchdowns, which accounted for over 70 percent of Bama’s passing yardage. Not that you couldn’t already tell, but Cooper’s a big-game type of player: For the three Iron Bowls he’s played in, Cooper has 511 receiving yards on 24 catches with six touchdown catches.
Speaking of numbers, Cooper has put together a quality season so far: 103 catches for 1,573 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaging 15.3 yards per reception. He’s on pace to break Southeasern Conference records in receptions (112), receiving yards (1,740) and possibly TDs (18). He may not be close to FBS records for yardage (2,060) or TDs (27), but Cooper gets extra credit for posting his numbers in the SEC.
And as high as his numbers are, that Auburn dismissed its defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson following a game where his plan so miserably failed to contain Cooper might be better evidence of his greatness. Guarding Cooper “like he was any other person” is downright foolish. He’s one of those rare wide receivers who excels at nearly every aspect of catching a football: Great hands, separation speed, big hops, good route-running and can improvise when a play breaks down. We see these type of five-tool WRs in the pros, but seldom does a wide receiver hold the maturity to bring it all together at the college level like Cooper has this season.
No Heisman winner has won the award solely on his abilities as wide receiver. It’s not outside the realm of possibility, but Amari Cooper will need Marcus Mariota and Melvin Gordon to fall first. But if that happens, Cooper may force tradition’s hand.
Heisman top 3
For the remainder of the race, we’re going to rank the top 3 remaining candidates in descending order with a quick explanation of why a player is ranked where he is. These rankings are fluid and (mostly) made for fun.
1) Marcus Mariota -- Do you think Mariota reads the Internet? Serious inquiry here. Still think he’s the best player in college football, but a little worried about my not-that-cool comment from earlier. Ducks fly together? (Please tell me you got that reference, Marcus.) (I bet you he doesn’t.)
2) Melvin Gordon -- I don’t like discussing a player’s injury this way but it's (kind of) necessary: J.T. Barrett going down for the year hurt Gordon’s Heisman campaign. The Big Ten conference championship won’t be as hyped as a result, which is a something Gordon needed, as well as a win due largely to his performance, to overtake Mariota. However, with the B1G championship and Wisconsin’s bowl game, Barry Sanders’ season yardage total (2,628) does seem within striking distance for a guy like Gordon (2,260). Decent consolation prize, right?
3) Amari Cooper -- Guess I didn’t answer arguably the most important question, especially for Alabama fans: Is Amari Cooper cooler than Blake Sims? Psh. Come on. You know the answer to that.
• Heisman archives