By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. -- What were you doing at 19 years old?
That's a rhetorical question, unless of course your name is Amari Cooper, Cyrus Jones or TJ Yeldon. In their case, they play significant roles for the nation's top team, a collective talent that both amazed and terrified this past Saturday night against Tennessee. They amazed true fans of college football, while terrorizing the future opponents who will try and stop them.
Alabama is universally recognized as college football's best team. The defending National Champions have gone 7-0 in 2012, while rarely being challenged during any game this year. The Crimson Tide are winning by an average margin of 41-8, and has defeated each team they've lined up against by at least 19 points. To say they are dominating is an understatement, as the numbers show they are simply at another level. Five of their seven victories have come by 30 points or more, and they are on a 10-game winning streak dating back to last year.
Yes, Alabama is that good.
The foundation of this dominance is built on the Tide's talent (and Nick Saban), and their ability to replenish the roster even as great players leave to the NFL. Twenty former Alabama players have been drafted by the NFL in the past three years, including 10 selected in the first round. While that number is astonishing in itself, head coach Nick Saban's ability to recruit the same level of talent to replace them is perhaps more staggering.
The names roll of your tongue...and so do the ones that step in to fill their shoes. Gone was Rolando McClain...in stepped Donta Hightower. Mark Ingram won a Heisman Trophy, and Trent Richardson ended up at the ceremony a year later. Just when you think a possible end is in sight to this historic Alabama run, more talented freshman show up to remind you that's not the case.
That brings me to my initial question, as a new trio of freshmen emerged on Saturday. Emerged might not be the right word, seeing as how their marquee ability has already been on showcase for most of the season. However, the trio has never combined to have as much success as they did against Tennessee on Saturday, and their performance served as grim reminder to those that hope Alabama's dominance will soon end.
The group combined for 377 yards of total offense, leading Alabama in rushing (Yeldon), receiving (Cooper) and return yards (Jones). The trio scored four touchdowns, almost 66 percent of the Tide's point total. An impressive number considering Cooper had a TD called back by penalty. They changed field position (Jones), wore down the Vol defense (Yeldon) and made big plays (Cooper).
TJ Yeldon was already known to most fans before the season began, as Alabama's Mr. Football in 2011 made a big impression before his first official game. Yeldon showed his five-star talent at Alabama's "A-Day", and comparisons to the running back he was technically replacing (on the roster), Trent Richardson, began. Yeldon's mix of power and speed invoke thoughts of Darren McFadden, the complete package at a position that is prominently featured in the Tide's offense.
Thus far the production has matched the hype, with the rookie having rushed for 565 yards and eight TDs, a lethal 6.8 yards a carry. Both legends that proceeded Yeldon, Ingram and Richardson, ran for just 728 and 751 yards their freshman seasons, a number Yeldon looks certain to eclipse at his current pace.
Amari Cooper's emergence is more of a surprise, as although the talented recruit garnered his fair share of prep attention, receivers usually take longer to adapt to the college game. Also a factor is Alabama's offense, known more for its rushing attack than its passing game. That hasn't stopped Cooper from becoming signal caller AJ McCarron's favorite target, catching a team-high 28 balls so far.
Cooper already has five touchdowns this season, more than former great and first round pick Julio Jones had in his freshman year (4). Cooper runs polished routes for a player so young, and also has an elusiveness that makes him a major home run threat. He showed that against Tennessee, shaking several defenders during a 42-yard jaunt to the end zone.
Cyrus Jones is perhaps the most unheralded of the three, but his special teams prowess should not be overlooked. His season numbers aren't as impressive, but Saturday he showed promise as a dynamic return man. He averaged 15 yards per punt return, and his 32-yard scamper set up the Tide's first touchdown. He nearly broke a kickoff return later in the game that was called back by penalty.
Jones was clocked at 4.45 seconds in the 40-yard dash as a prep star, and was one of the highest ranked receivers in the country coming out of Gilam High School in Baltimore. If he reminds you of former returner extraordinaire Javier Arenas, that's because he fits the bill perfectly. Jones' speed is game breaking, and provides Alabama with another weapon on special teams.
Most programs hope to produce a player like Trent Richardson, Mark Ingram or Julio Jones once a decade. At Alabama, it seems to happen every year, another signal of the Tide's strength and Nick Saban's ability to oversee a championship level program.
Who knows? Maybe two years from now we will be asking...who is the next TJ Yeldon? Who's Amari Cooper's replacement? Who will return punts like Cyrus?
But for now, let's enjoy the latest trio of sensational talent in Tuscaloosa. They are pretty good for a group of freshmen.