TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It was easy to look at Amari Cooper early in the season and see something was wrong.
The first clue was his inability of hold on to the football. His hands used to be vacuums for the football, but through three games, he had four drops. Clue No. 2 was his underwhelming production. He had five 100-yard efforts in his final eight games last season, but through three games he had mustered just 100 yards combined. Those tips were obvious. But clue No. 3, Cooper's name not being at the top of Alabama's depth chart, was the most telling.
Cooper, a breakout star and consensus Freshman All-America selection at wide receiver a year ago, had fallen inexplicably back to earth.
Cooper had been banged up before the season and missed some time in practice, but the extent of his injuries was unclear. "I don't really know how much the toe is hiring or not," quarterback AJ McCarron said. It wasn't the defense's way of covering him that had caused his decline. "Coverage has been the same as always," McCarron explained. All that was certain was Cooper wasn't himself and he was frustrated by his performance.
Nick Saban lauded Cooper as a "hard-working guy" who won the points of all his tests in the summer conditioning program. He called his struggling sophomore "a guy that really, really wants to be good and do well."
"I think it's very frustrating when you have something that's nagging you that you can't do things on a consistent basis like you'd like to do them," Saban added. "I think the fact that we haven't played him as much lately, I do think he's getting healthy and he's had a really good week this week, so hopefully if we don't have a setback, he'll be able to continue to progress and do a good job."
Saban made those comments following Alabama's 45-3 drumming of Georgia State, the second time in five games that Cooper had a noticeably blank stat line: no yards, no touchdowns, no receptions. To many, it raised the question of whether this was a case of a sophomore slump or a sharp career downturn.
Saban's words seemed to indicate hope for improvement. And in the last two weeks we've seen a steady, though not staggering, gain in the 6-foot-1 athlete's game. He's been a little faster, a little more sure handed and a little more like himself. In his last two games he's combined to catch six passes for 129 yards and a touchdown.
Following the Kentucky game, Saban seemed noncommittal, yet optimistic about Cooper's resurgence.
"I think it’s very, very important that all of our players on offense have a role and are productive," he said. "We’re fortunate to have really five or six really good receivers that are all capable of making plays in a game. I know Kenny had a couple drops in the last game and I know that’s disappointing to him, but we have a lot of confidence in Kenny Bell. DeAndrew White has played well. Christion Jones has played well. Kevin Norwood has played well. Amari, finally back, ready to go, played fast and was very productive in the game. I think that’s important to us. I think we have to have roles for all those guys in the game so that they can be productive."
Following Saturday's win over Arkansas, McCarron said it felt good getting Cooper back involved.
"I felt like he got involved last week," he said. "It started last week, so it's good to have him back. He seems to be running good, playing good, so that helps us."
Cooper hasn't spoken with the media since before the start of the season, so it's hard to say what his mindset is. Kevin Norwood, a leader among the receivers as a senior, said his performance of late has been a "confidence-booster."
"He knows it," Norwood said. "He knows we need him down the stretch. It's a confidence-booster for him to get going and make plays for us."
But for Alabama's offense to operate on all cylinders, it needs Cooper at full strength. Recent games seem to indicate he's getting closer. If he does return to 100 percent, he'll join a group of receivers that goes five and six deep. With Cooper spreading the field vertically, it would open up things for the rest of McCarron's targets.
If Cooper really is back, we'll see it against Tennessee this weekend. His game against the Vols in Neyland Stadium a year ago was a personal highlight reel: seven catches, 162 yards and two touchdowns.
That was the night Cooper became a star as he thrust himself squarely on the national stage with his first career 100-yard performance in Knoxville.
If he can do the same, or even close to that, this Saturday in Tuscaloosa, we'll know whether he's destined to remain on that stage for good.