Headliner: Amari Cooper (SO.)
Who to Watch: OJ Howard (FR.)
The Alabama Crimson Tide’s 2013 group of receivers may be the most talented and deep group in the country, and perhaps the best in Alabama history. Last year’s crop of pass catchers is back almost in its entirety, the only losses coming from transfers Danny Woodson Jr. (South Alabama) and Marvin Shinn, as well as starting tight end Michael Williams, who graduated last year. Woodson and Shinn combined for seven catches and 51 yards in 2012.
There’s no question that AJ McCarron’s No. 1 target is 2012 freshman All-American Amari Cooper, who broke all of Julio Jones’ freshman records last season. Cooper finished 2012 with 59 catches for 1,000 yards exactly and 11 TDs. His sheer polished ability as a freshman was almost mesmerizing, and his route running was that of a seasoned player. Combined with his speed, athleticism and excellent hands, Cooper quickly became AJ McCarron’s go-to man. The chemistry McCarron and Cooper developed is going to go a long way toward this tandem continuing to get even better – a scary thought for opposing defenses.
Perhaps the best example of that chemistry was during Alabama’s lone loss in 2012 to Texas A&M. On a third down late in the game, Cooper ran a curl route, but as the corner on Cooper’s side blitzed it left the safety alone to cover him. The safety peeked inside at McCarron, so instead of throwing to the curl, he waited and Cooper turned on the jets, streaking past the DB. McCarron then tossed the ball to Cooper for an easy 50+ yard touchdown.
In 2009 Jones’ numbers dipped from 58 catches, 924 yards, and four TDs as a freshman to 43 catches, 596 yards, and four TDs as a sophomore. The obvious difference being that Jones was paired with a senior QB in John Parker Wilson in 2008, while Greg McElroy was a first-time starter who struggled mightily mid-season in 2009.
As McElroy settled in near the end of the year and then really came into his own in 2010, Jones’ numbers bounced back and he broke all single-season Alabama records with 78 catches, 1,133 yards, and seven touchdowns (all career highs as well).
Will there be a sophomore slump for Cooper? The biggest advantage for Cooper will be that he’s not breaking in a new quarterback, and as much as anyone loves McElroy, no one will make an argument that he was better than McCarron either.
Cooper isn’t the only playmaking pass catcher for Bama. Kenny Bell averaged an SEC best 25.4 yards per catch (17 catches, 431 yards, three TDs) in 2012, becoming the definition of a deep threat. Against Auburn, Bell suffered a broken leg that ended his season, but he was actually already running by the time of the 2012 BCS National Championship Game. He showed off his speed (and the fact that he’s healthy again) in the A-Day game by catching a 40-yard touchdown pass from McCarron.
Kevin Norwood has become a true big-game player in his Alabama career. He exploded in the 2011 BCS National Championship against LSU, burning the Honey Badger for four catches and a game-high 78 yards. He did the same against LSU in 2012, catching five passes for 62 yards. Three of those catches came on Alabama’s huge fourth-quarter game-winning drive. Norwood finished 2012 with 29 catches, 461 yards, and four scores, all good enough for second on the team. In 2013 Norwood could be poised for his biggest season, with more and more attention being paid to Cooper. Norwood is more of a possession receiver than the other primary targets for McCarron.
DeAndrew White may have been a top target for McCarron in 2012 had he not blown his knee out in just the fifth game of the season. The speedster dazzled in the season opener with an ankle-breaking double move put on Michigan’s corner, leading to the first deep pass of the year for McCarron. White had eight catches, 105 yards, and two touchdowns when he went down with injury, and if he’s able to return to form could combine to form one of the most dynamic set of receivers with Cooper, Norwood and Bell.
The talent doesn’t fall much after those top four either, with Christion Jones having a ton of game experience at receiver (27 catches, 368 yards, four TDs in 2012) as well as being the top return man last season (which he will likely reprise his role as in 2013). Redshirt freshman Chris Black was as highly-rated coming out of high school as fellow classmate Amari Cooper, but a preseason injury stopped what was expected to be a significant role for him in 2013. Black was medically cleared before the SEC Championship and with a rash of injuries including White and Bell at the time, Nick Saban contemplated burning his redshirt to get his talent on the field, but in the end he was never played and will get an extra year of eligibility. The speedy Black expects to make some noise in 2013.
Six-foot-four, 195-pound true freshman Raheem Falkins was an early enrollee in the Spring and impressed the coaching staff and observers. Joining him in the Fall will be highly-touted Pittsburgh native Robert Foster and burner Eddie Jackson. With all the talent in front of them it will be a task to get on the field for the freshmen.
Tight end has been an underrated position for the Tide over the last several years. Colin Peek was unquestionably the best pass catching TE during the Saban era, while Brad Smelley was the most productive at Alabama’s hybrid FB/TE position: H-Back. For the last three years TE Michael Williams was almost like having another offensive tackle on the field as a dominant blocker while Brian Vogler settled in as the H-Back last season.
In 2013 the six-foot-seven, 260-pound Vogler is expected to slide into the starting TE spot while the H-Back will likely be shared by the versatile Jalston Fowler (who will also undoubtedly split time at Tailback) and Freshman OJ Howard. Howard seems to be the type of player bred for Alabama’s H-Back position. The six-foot-six, 237-pound Howard is an athletic freak and matchup nightmare for defenses. Vogler and Howard could end up being one of the most dynamic TE tandems in the SEC when it’s all said and done.
One of the more interesting things to follow will be how Doug Nussmeier uses Howard. It’s likely that Howard lines up all over the field from traditional TE to the FB – which a hybrid H-Back typical does – but also splitting out at receiver in the slot. Howard has been compared to players like New Orleans Saints TE Jimmy Graham and Patriots TE Ron Gronkowski, who are changing the way the TE position is played in the NFL, so Nussmeier may very well use some of the ways their teams use them as a mold for Howard.
One thing is very clear about the Alabama offense in 2013; this receiving corps is deep and possibly the deepest in the country. AJ McCarron has a slew of toys to play with, and this version of Alabama could end up being the most prolific passing attack in Crimson Tide history.