MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — It didn’t take long—only a few minutes of video from the Gold-Blue spring game, in fact—for Alabama receiver Amari Cooper to notice the oddity of West Virginia’s 3-3-5 stack defense.
“They play a pretty weird defense to me,” Cooper told reporters Tuesday. “I’ve never went up against that type of defense. It’s something that we’ll be working on all week to get used to.”
That weird defense is the design of West Virginia’s first-year coordinator Tony Gibson, who hopes to limit Cooper’s touches downfield and coral the preseason All-American when Alabama throws screens.
At 6-foot-1, Cooper shows the ability to outjump defensive backs on leaping grabs. Having posted three unofficial 40 times of 4.31, 4.35 and 4.38 last spring, he also has the speed to punish them after the catch.
NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks, who spent five seasons in the league as a player and eight as a scout, evaluated game video of Cooper from 2013, a sophomore season that was largely disappointing (team-high 45 catches, 736 yards, four touchdowns):
“He is already more polished than (Clemson’s) Sammy Watkins and (Texas A&M’s) Mike Evans as a route runner, and exhibits the explosiveness to be a difference-maker in any system … I can see Cooper thriving as a Roddy White-like playmaker as a pro.”
Of course the biggest mystery in Tuscaloosa involves which quarterback will be throwing passes to Cooper. He said that decision doesn’t influence the offensive play-calling, even though converted running back Blake Sims gives away five inches and significant arm strength to 6-5 Jacob Coker.
“No, it’s the same (offense) with both,” Cooper said. “Those guys do a good job with identifying the Mike linebacker and whatever they need to do to make the receivers hot.”
Watch out to see whether West Virginia pays special emphasis to Cooper—in particular, whether top cornerback Daryl Worley tries to matchup against him. Throughout spring, summer and preseason camp, the talk from Gibson, Worley and cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell regarded keeping the corners on a specific side, but that was somewhat designed to help them line up quickly against uptempo offenses. Alabama hasn’t shown a proclivity to go no-huddle, so WVU might be inclined to shift Worley in certain situations.
Even though Cooper made nine catches for 121 yards in the Sugar Bowl, the fact Oklahoma beat Alabama by two touchdowns on a neutral field gives Worley and his teammates optimism. After all, WVU played the Sooners to a 16-7 loss in Norman.
“It shows us anything is possible,” Worley said. “This team in our conference that we battled very closely ended up taking them down.”
One more scouting tidbit from Brooks regarding Cooper:
“If I had to cite a flaw in Cooper’s game, I would point to his occasional struggles against press coverage. Studying Cooper’s play against Virginia Tech, I noticed that he had a tough time separating from the Hokies’ Kyle Fuller on the perimeter. While Fuller is certainly an elite defender, as evidenced by his selection by the Bears with the No. 14 overall pick in May’s NFL draft, Cooper must be able to win consistently against the “hug and mug” tactics used by top cover corners.”