Alabama's freshman playmakers are coming of age just when the top-ranked Crimson Tide will need them most.
Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon each scored two touchdowns Saturday in Alabama's 44-13 rout of Tennessee. Cooper caught seven passes and set an Alabama freshman single-game record with 162 receiving yards. Yeldon rushed for 129 yards on 15 carries to go over the century mark for the third time this season.
Cooper and Yeldon weren't made available to reporters after the game. Alabama coach Nick Saban has a policy of not allowing freshmen to speak to the media. They still made quite a statement with their performances as Alabama's offense delivered arguably its most complete performance of the season.
"Everyone has to understand that we are going to take what the defense gives us," said Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, who now leads the nation in passing efficiency. "One week, we might have to throw it and the next we might have to run it more. Tonight, we got them on their heels a little and we were able to do both."
Alabama (7-0, 4-0 SEC) has won each of its games by at least 19 points, but the Tide have greater challenges ahead. Alabama's next three games are all against ranked SEC Western Division rivals: No. 13 Mississippi State, No. 6 LSU and No. 22 Texas A&M. The Mississippi State and Texas A&M games are at home, but Alabama will have to travel to LSU.
Cooper certainly seems ready for the challenge.
The 6-foot-1 receiver from Miami opened the scoring Saturday by getting behind the entire Tennessee secondary and catching a 23-yard touchdown pass in the right corner of the end zone. He also helped put the game out of reach in the third quarter with a 42-yard touchdown reception that extended Alabama's lead to 30-10.
His big day could have been even bigger. In Alabama's opening possession of the second half, Cooper had an apparent 30-yard touchdown nullified by an illegal formation penalty.
"He can be one of the greatest," Alabama tight end Michael Williams said. "You see it. You can see the talent that he has."
Cooper already has emerged as McCarron's favorite target. He has 28 receptions, twice as many as any of his teammates. He also has 425 yards receiving, 173 more than anyone else on the team. This marked his second two-touchdown performance in his last three games, as he also reached the end zone twice Sept. 29 in a 33-14 victory over Ole Miss.
"We think he's an outstanding player," Saban said. "He's just a freshman, and he's gotten better and better every week. He has learned to be very consistent in how he plays. He plays fast and hard."
Yeldon has been equally impressive. The 6-2 running back from Daphne, Ala., has exceeded the 100-yard mark and has scored a pair of touchdowns in each of Alabama's last two games.
When C.J. Mosley's interception gave Alabama the ball at the Tennessee 32 early in the second quarter, the Tide reached the end zone by handing the ball to Yeldon four straight times. Yeldon capped that drive with a 1-yard scoring burst and added a 43-yard breakaway in the fourth quarter for Alabama's final touchdown.
Yeldon, who had verbally committed to Auburn before signing with Alabama, has teamed up with junior Eddie Lacy to give the Tide a remarkably balanced rushing attack. Lacy has rushed for 570 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Yeldon has run for 565 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 6.8 yards per attempt.
Cooper and Yeldon arrived at Alabama this year as part of a recruiting class generally regarded as the best in the nation. Their performance Saturday backed up the comments Tennessee coach Derek Dooley had made before the game in reference to Alabama's extraordinary talent base.
"They draft. We recruit," Dooley quipped. "And they get the first 25 picks of the draft."
In that case, consider Cooper and Yeldon a pair of first-round picks. If they keep up this pace, both eventually could be actual first-round selections.