Calvin and Coop: How a freshman WR replaced a Heisman finalist at Alabama

Alabama freshman receiver Calvin Ridley, left, is already drawing comparisons to former Crimson Tide standout Amari Cooper. Getty Images

ATLANTA -- It’s scary how similar the circumstances were.

The same stakes. The same stadium. The same side of the field.

It’s 2012 and Alabama is playing Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.

It’s 2015 and Alabama is playing Florida for the conference title.

Alabama trails in both games. In both instances, the offense is at midfield when a play-action pass is called.

AJ McCarron spots Amari Cooper.

Jake Coker spots Calvin Ridley.

Both freshmen receivers have their men beat.

Cooper catches up to McCarron’s pass and scores the go-ahead touchdown.

Ridley slows down, jumps between two Florida defensive backs and comes down with Coker's pass inside the 10-yard line, setting up a go-ahead touchdown by Derrick Henry.

Alabama wins, both receivers are named to freshman All-America teams and go on to play for a national championship.

Talk about déjà vu.

If Ridley wore a visor and changed his uniform to No. 9, you’d swear that Cooper had come back for his senior season.

Without Ridley doing his best Cooper impression, leading the team in receptions and receiving yards, Alabama likely isn’t in the position it is today, only a few weeks removed from facing Michigan State in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.

"He reminds me of a young Coop," said junior safety Eddie Jackson. "He already has the moves and the routes and the ball skills.

"Calvin’s a low-key dude," he added. "He doesn’t talk too much, say too much. He just sits back and chills. That’s why everyone compares him to Coop."

It’s a flattering connection, of course, but one that Ridley seems to shy away from. Sure, he studied practice tape of Cooper and tries to emulate some of his moves, but Ridley makes it clear that, "I like being compared to him, but I’m myself."

"Calvin is Calvin and Coop is Coop," Jackson said. "He wants to make a name for himself."

He was the kid who couldn’t find the right place to play football.

At Dillard High, Ridley was stuck in a run-first system and wanted out. Then, after being buried on the depth chart at Chaminade High, his coach resigned at the end the season.

He was talented, players told Monarch High coach Calvin Davis. But Davis hadn’t heard of Ridley and was skeptical of the skinny junior looking to transfer. "People come all the time saying they know this kid and that kid," Davis said, and besides, these were Ridley’s friends he was hearing from, so he had no way of knowing what was true. When he finally laid eyes on Ridley, Davis was struck by how small he was.

"He was probably a buck-sixty when he first started coming around," Davis recalled.

Davis, who had just taken a three-win team to an 8-3 record his first season as head coach, took a flier on Ridley. And it didn’t take long to see he had made the right decision.

During the opening quarter of a preseason game against Hollywood Hills, Ridley got his hands on the ball for the first time.

"He caught a slant and went about 65 yards untouched between two safeties," Davis said. "Right then you knew he was better than everyone else."

If that wasn’t enough, Ridley came back to start the second half and took the kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, Davis said, graduating from good to great in his coach’s eyes.

"Right then you knew he was just special," he said.

There would be more revelations like that for Davis, who witnessed Ridley become ESPN’s No. 1-ranked receiver -- a fluid route-runner who didn’t blow you away physically, but always found a way to win one-on-one battles.

Humble, laid back and funny, Davis said Ridley doesn’t fit the diva mold we typically associate with those at his position.

"He lets his play do the talking," he said.

Even after Ridley was ruled ineligible four games into his senior season because of his age, he didn’t pout. According to Davis, Ridley worked out twice a day, showed up to practices and games, and acted like a part-time receivers coach.

"He put his focus into getting bigger, getting stronger and getting ready for school," Davis said.

So it’s no wonder that Ridley hit the ground running at Alabama, catching 13 passes in his first three games before being elevated to a starter. Week 4, he caught his first career touchdown. He would catch touchdown passes in each of his next two games.

Against Florida in the SEC Championship Game, Ridley delivered a bone-jarring block that sent cornerback Jalen Tabor to the sideline during Alabama’s first offensive possession. Ridley went on to catch eight passes for 102 yards in the game.

Davis, who said he heard early on from Alabama coaches how impressed they were with Ridley’s work ethic, isn’t shocked by his former receiver’s success.

"Surprised? No. Excited? Yes," he said. "I knew how good he was. I probably didn’t know he’d dominate as he’s done so soon."

As far as the comparison to Cooper, Davis said Ridley wants to "create his own legacy."

"Eventually people will stop comparing him to someone else and give him his own credit," he said.

But, to be fair, the hyperbole started inside Alabama’s own walls, not the media.

"Calvin has really kind of showed some elite talent of guys over the years we’ve been able to be around," said offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin before the start of the season. "A couple of Biletnikoff winners and a bunch of All-Americans, he’s shown that talent. Now there’s a long way to go to get to that level, but his speed when he catches the ball and his transition, if he does the other things all the way through, which is a lot, he’s going to be really special."

Saban wasn’t thrilled with Kiffin’s extravagant comments, of course, pointing out how, "The guy hasn’t even played yet."

But when Ridley saw the field, there was no denying it: he belonged in the same conversation as former Alabama greats Cooper and Julio Jones.

"Ridley sort of got thrown in maybe a little before he was ready and he responded really well," Saban said.

That was the tame way of putting it.

Said fellow receiver ArDarius Stewart: "He came in making big plays, and all season he's made big plays. Any game, when you look at the highlight, he's on it."

The 20-year-old rookie who teammates call "C-Rid" continues to impress.

When Coker saw Ridley go up between two Florida defensive backs and come down with that 55-yard pass during the SEC title game, he said he thought, "No way he just caught that."

"He went up and made a play for us," Coker said, "and I’m not surprised because he’s Calvin."

Said defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick: "That’s what he does. That’s Calvin being Calvin."

So far, Ridley looks a lot like Cooper.

The scary part is that at this point in his career, with 16 more catches than Cooper had as a freshman, Ridley might be better than his Heisman Trophy finalist predecessor.