Missouri coach Gary Pinkel paid Alabama’s star wide receiver Amari Cooper the highest compliment he could Monday during his weekly news conference ahead of Saturday’s SEC Championship Game.
Pinkel compared Cooper — a junior who ranks third in the nation in receptions (103), second in receiving yards (1,573) and second in receiving touchdowns (14) — to former Tigers standout Jeremy Maclin.
“(Cooper) reminds me of Jeremy a little bit — a very smooth athlete, explosive, he can run away from you, great catches,” Pinkel said. “He’s a guy, without question, that can have a huge impact on any game he plays in.”
Cooper is widely heralded as the nation’s top receiver and is a presumptive top-five pick in the NFL Draft whenever he leaves the Crimson Tide.
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He’s also the Missouri secondary’s top priority and biggest challenge beginning at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
“He’ll be the best guy I’ve played against by far,” Tigers sophomore cornerback Aarion Penton said. “He’s a very elite player and everything he does makes him elite. But that’s why I came to this school, to face people like him. It will be a great challenge.”
Cooper — who is 6-foot-1, 210 pounds and from Miami, Fla. — already set single-season Alabama records for catches, yards and touchdowns this season and also owns the program’s career records for receptions (207), receiving yards (3,309) and receiving touchdowns (29).
“You talk about an impact player, his numbers speak for themselves,” Pinkel said. “He’s a clutch player, and it’s really impressive to watch him.”
Facing Cooper would seem to be the stuff of nightmares for a defensive back, but Missouri’s players insist they won’t be losing sleep this week.
“He’s one of those guys you have to know where he is on the field at all times,” Missouri junior free safety Ian Simon said. “It wouldn’t be smart on your part to not know where he is. That will be in my mind every time I line up, but I’m not going to over-hype it. I’ve played against great players before.”
Cooper has caught at least eight passes in 10 of the Tide’s 12 games this season and has three 200-yard receiving games this season, including an Iron Bowl-record 224 yards with touchdowns in a 55-44 win last Saturday against Auburn.
Cooper’s 26 receptions of 20 yards or more rank second in the Football Bowl Subdivision this season. He is tied for third with eight catches of at least 40 yards and is tied for fifth with three catches of at least 60 yards.
“We’ve got to eliminate all the big plays,” Dennis said. “He’s one of the guys we know we have to stop in order to win this ballgame. We’re aware that he’s a big impact player.”
Building him into something more won’t help Missouri’s cause.
“He’s versatile, fast, and he knows how to get open, but we just need to stay focused,” sophomore cornerback John Gibson said. “He’s human. He can be stopped. We’ve just got to come to play Saturday.”
Arkansas limited Cooper to two catches for 22 yards. He caught at least eight passes against Mississippi, LSU and Mississippi State but failed to top 100 yards in any of those games.
Missouri should be back at full strength on the back end.
Penton, who injured his right hamstring against Kentucky and was suspended against Texas A&M after a bye-week arrest for alleged marijuana possession, played sparingly against Tennessee and Arkansas.
Penton said the hamstring is healed, and he expects to return to the starting lineup Saturday.
▪ WHO: Missouri vs. Alabama
▪ WHEN/WHERE: 3 p.m. Saturday in Atlanta
▪ TV: CBS