TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Throughout spring and fall camp at the University of Alabama, the veteran players saw it coming. The freshmen the world had yet to greet were practicing with them every day and they could see their potential. Nothing the former four- and five-star prospects would do during the season would surprise the veterans after going head to head with them under the watchful eye of coach Nick Saban.
It wasn't hard to look at Amari Cooper's hands and see he could play receiver in the SEC. It wasn't difficult to see T.J. Yeldon's burst out of the backfield and know he'd continue the lineage of successful rookie running backs. It wasn't a strain to gauge Geno Smith's fluid hips and quick feet and assume he'd find a way onto one of the most complex and successful defenses in the country.
While the world waited impatiently on the new-look Crimson Tide during the buildup to the season, the players witnessed it coming together behind closed doors.
Nico Johnson wished you could have seen practice. The senior linebacker said the way Yeldon caught on at running back and became comfortable in the offense so quickly was amazing. Yeldon's 154 yards against Georgia on Saturday was enough to reach 1,000 for the season.
Michael Williams saw Cooper make catches in practice most wouldn't believe. The senior tight end said after Cooper's 162-yard performance against Tennessee that the freshman receiver could become one of the greatest to play the position at Alabama. Cooper leads all receivers in catches (53), yards (895) and touchdowns (9).
Vinnie Sunseri was in Smith's shoes a year ago, studying the cornerback and star positions simultaneously as a freshman. It was a difficult task, and Suneri said he has been impressed with Smith's development and eagerness to learn from day one. On Saturday night, Smith started at star and held his own against a Georgia offense that averages 458 yards per game.
So how was it done? In a game that touts experience over skill, how are a handful of freshmen making the difference on a team now making travel arrangements for a trip to Miami to compete in the championship game?
"We're a mature group," Smith said of the freshmen class. Saturday marked the first time rookies were allowed to speak to the media. "Cooper, T.J., they all came in early and they've been well-groomed. I came in during the summer. When we got here, we knew what to expect. We knew we had a job and a legacy to live up to."
Smith said it's as simple as "filling our roles." His role on defense took time. He said this season has been a series of ups and downs, but the lows were never too low for the Georgia native.
"I was never down about playing," he said. "I knew we had great guys in the secondary, I was just waiting my turn. Now that my turn is here I'm just trying to take full advantage of it."
It took time for Smith to learn Saban's defense, one he called "very complex."
"It's an NFL-style defense," he said. "The language and everything is NFL-based. When you practice it, you learn it. Myself, I messed up in games before. When you mess up, you learn.
"Before the bye week I was making a lot of mental errors. After the bye week, everything started to click."
Cooper, who is a sure-fire bet to make at least one all-freshman team, said nothing about this season has been a surprise.
"It's everything that I expected to do," he said. He didn't need the bye week to catch on. The early enrollee hit the ground running, racking up 17 catches and three touchdowns by the end of September. "I expected to come in and make an impact and that's what I'm doing."
The last Alabama freshman receiver to make the same kind of impact was Julio Jones. Cooper needs just five receptions and 29 yards to pass Jones' freshmen totals. He already has hauled in five more touchdowns. But Jones wasn't competing in a national championship in his freshman year in 2008. That part, Cooper said, wasn't quite what he expected.
"It's a dream come true," he said.
Cooper will return home to South Florida more quickly than he expected. The former top-10 prospect out of Miami Northwestern High will get to see his family and friends in Sun Life Stadium when the Crimson Tide face Notre Dame for the national title Jan. 7.
So what will they see differently now that Cooper has become a star? Not much, according to the rookie.
"I'm just an Alabama football player now," he said. "That's the only difference."