TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Amari Cooper and D'haquille Williams have brought a new twist to the Iron Bowl.
Instead of tailbacks and quarterbacks being the Alabama-Auburn game's featured playmakers, it might just be those two talented receivers — provided they're healthy.
The second-ranked Crimson Tide's Cooper has been hands-down that team's most effective weapon for quarterback Blake Sims in a down season statistically for the runners. When he's hot, and he has been most games, 'Bama's offense has flourished.
"Amari Cooper is one of the better playmakers in all of college football, if not the best playmaker," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "He's a special player."
Both receivers have gone down with knee injuries in recent weeks. Cooper gave fans a scare when he crumpled to the turf with a bruised left knee early against Western Carolina last weekend. He didn't return.
Coach Nick Saban has indicated Cooper could have come back if needed and will play in this game. Williams also is expected to return after missing the past two games and most of a third with a sprained right knee.
"He is one of our playmakers," Malzahn said. "He has had an outstanding year. He has the ability to make 1-on-1 plays and plays in traffic. I don't know if he is at 100 percent, but we are expecting him to play."
The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Cooper is one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award given to the nation's top receiver, joining Colorado State's Rashard Higgins and West Virginia's Kevin White.
He's already had the most prolific season of any Alabama pass-catcher with 90 catches for 1,349 yards and 11 touchdowns. Cooper has also come up big in the past two Iron Bowls, totaling 287 receiving yards and three touchdowns. He ran for a 28-yard gain last season and caught a 99-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
This will be the first time Williams, a junior college transfer, has played in this rivalry game. In his absence, quarterback Nick Marshall's efficiency as a passer slipped the past two games.
Marshall is a dual-threat player who was once regarded as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate, and Cameron Artis-Payne is the Southeastern Conference's leading rusher.
But the 6-2, 216-pound Williams also is an integral part of the offense, possibly more so in this game given how unyielding Alabama has been against the run. He isn't nearly as prolific as Cooper but he has been Auburn's most reliable, balanced receiver in an offense that tries to strike with deep balls off the play-action.
"He's got great hands, has got great range as a ballcatcher," Saban said of Williams. "He makes some catches that most other guys couldn't even get to the ball."
With 38 catches for 609 yards and five touchdowns — all team-highs — Williams' presence gives defenses more to watch out for from the passing game as a complement to deep threat Sammie Coates.
"They're strong, fast, they high-point the ball," said Tide safety Landon Collins, a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award. "Definitely great receivers that we're going to be playing against that will give our corners and safeties a challenge."
Williams has had three 100-yard games and Coates two. Cooper, meanwhile, has one-upped them by reaching 100 yards six times and topping 200 twice.
He's third nationally in receiving yards and only Arkansas has shut him down. Cooper had two catches for 22 yards in that game and Alabama sputtered to a 14-13 win.
Sims said early in the week that his favorite target seemed fine, and was raring to go.
"He's bouncing around, ready to play," Sims said. "I think he's the most excited guy on the team."
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