It has been a spectacular season for the Alabama Crimson Tide as they sit with a 12-1 record heading into their BCS Championship showdown with #1 ranked Notre Dame. We are now five days away from the big game, and both teams landed in Miami earlier this afternoon for their final preparations prior to the January 7th game at Sun Life Stadium.
We’ve already handed out awards for offensive player of the year and defensive player of the year. Of course, the Crimson Tide wouldn’t be where they are without the contributions of some outstanding freshmen.
So now, we’ll award the offensive freshman of the year, which as you can probably guess comes down to two guys. One, a stud running back who was a five star recruit out of Daphne, Alabama, and quickly busted onto the scene in week one against Michigan, and the other a four star wide receiver out of Miami, Florida who was the Crimson Tide’s leading receiver in 2012.
The 6-foot-2 216 pound T.J. Yeldon was Alabama’s second leading rusher with exactly 1,000 yards on 154 carries with 11 touchdowns. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry and added 131 yards and a touchdown as a receiver.
Yeldon’s name was forever writ in Crimson Flame on November 3rd in Baton Rouge when he caught a screen pass from quarterback AJ McCarron and took the ball 28 yards into the endzone with less than a minute remaining to secure Alabama’s 21-17 win over LSU.
Yeldon became a household name way before that touchdown against the Bayou Bengals, however.. He announced his arrival onto the national scene immediately with a 111 yard performance against Michigan in the season opener in Dallas.
From there, Yeldon joined with junior running back Eddie Lacy to form one of the most lethal one-two punches in all of college football. He added three more 100+ yard games in 2012, despite only going over the 20-carry plateau one time, which just so happened to be the finest performance of his young career.
In the SEC Championship Game against Georgia, Yeldon carried the rock a career high 25 times for 153 yards and a touchdown. Yeldon, accompanied by Eddie Lacy, pounded Georgia for 350 rushing yards to help Alabama to the 32-28 win and a berth in the BCS Championship Game.
Most notably, Yeldon, not Lacy, was the back the Tide turned to down the stretch of the game with Alabama trailing by three points. Yeldon picked up a crucial first down on a 3rd-and-5 that set up the Crimson Tide’s game winning touchdown.
Yeldon and Lacy became the first running back duo in Crimson Tide history to both rush for over 1,000 yards in a single season. Impressive, considering former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and Doak Walker winner Trent Richardson shared the same backfield for two years in Tuscaloosa.
Yeldon wasn’t the only spectacular freshman on offense for Alabama with Amari Cooper also stealing the show at wide receiver for the Crimson Tide.
Unlike Yeldon, Cooper didn’t bust onto the scene instantly as he caught just three passes for 27 yards combined in the first two games of the season. He scored his first touchdown against Arkansas, but even then he only managed a meager two catches for 46 yards.
It wasn’t until Alabama’s September 29th game against Ole Miss that Cooper truly had a breakout performance. He caught 8 passes for 84 yards and two touchdowns in the Tide’s 33-14 win over the Rebels.
Three weeks later against Tennessee in Knoxville, Cooper put on a show with 7 receptions for 162 yards and two more touchdowns.
In three of the last four games, Cooper eclipsed the 100-yard barrier with 136 yards against Texas A&M, 109 yards against Auburn, and 128 yards against Georgia.
Cooper’s 895 receiving yards leads Alabama by a wide margin. His 9 receiving touchdowns set an Alabama freshman record for a receiver. He is just 30 yards away from breaking Julio Jones’ freshman receiving yard record, and he is one touchdown away from tying the single season record for touchdown catches.
I thought when Julio Jones left Tuscaloosa in 2010 that it would be a long time before we saw another receiver like him. He was a once in a generation player, but so seems to be Amari Cooper. Granted, Cooper is a completely different receiver than Julio, but he has been every bit as spectacular in his freshman season as Jones was in 2008.
Whether he was burning defensive backs, or coming up with spectacular catches (:43 second mark of this video), Amari Cooper always found a way to make a big impact when Alabama needed him most this season, and my money is on him doing so once again against the Fighting Irish in five days.
So which freshman had the better year, and which one of them deserves the distinction as the best offensive freshman on the Tide’s roster? It’s close, but I lean toward Amari Cooper, but really you couldn’t go wrong with either guy.
The big difference to me is that we expected Yeldon to come in and make an impact as a true freshman, but nobody really knew what to expect from Cooper. We knew Cooper was talented, especially after watching his outstanding performance in the Under Armour All American game as a senior in high school.
In anyone’s wildest imaginations of this season, I don’t think they expected Cooper to be the Tide’s leading receiver by more than 400 yards with guys like Kenny Bell, Kevin Norwood, Christion Jones, and DeAndrew White returning this season. He has been the go-to-guy for junior quarterback AJ McCarron, who had a record breaking season in his own right thanks in large part to the freshman sensation who was split out wide all year.
Yeldon and Cooper were both integral parts of Alabama’s run to the BCS Championship Game, and without them I don’t think Alabama would be where they are right now. Being without Cooper would probably sting just a bit more because he has demonstrably been Alabama’s best receiver this season.
Agree or Disagree? Let us know by leaving a comment. Tomorrow, we’ll examine the Tide’s best defensive freshman this year.
Follow John on Twitter.