GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — For two guys who have never met, Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and Alabama receiver Amari Cooper sure know a lot about each other.
It helps that they follow one another on Twitter.
On Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Hargreaves will follow Cooper all over the field. And they’ll surely get even more acquainted.
It’s the key matchup, the game inside the game, the Southeastern Conference’s best cornerback against the league’s best receiver. All-American vs. All-American.
“I can’t wait to see that,” Gators defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. said.
The outcome could go a long way to determining how the Gators (2-0, 1-0 SEC) fare against third-ranked Alabama (3-0, 0-0), which opened as a 15 1/2-point favorite.
“I’m excited about the matchup,” Hargreaves said. “Everybody knows what’s coming. I’m going to be covering him and I’m excited about it.”
A 5-foot-11 sophomore from Tampa, Hargreaves emerged as a shutdown cornerback last year. He started the final 10 games, finishing with three interceptions, 11 pass-breakups and countless accolades. He was on just about every freshman All-American team out there and opened this season with even more hype.
Not only was he compared to former Florida standout cornerbacks Lito Sheppard, Keiwan Ratliff, Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins, he was widely considered to be ahead of all of them at this stage in his college career.
“I think certain guys have ‘it,’ the ‘it,'” Gators coach Will Muschamp said. “What is ‘it?’ The guys who overcome coaching in some situations. He certainly does that. He’s got great instincts. He’s very quick. He’s got good long speed. He has natural ability to play with his back to the ball, which a lot of players really struggle with.”
Teammates rave about his work ethic, pointing to his practice habits and seemingly endless tape study.
“He spends as much time as anybody on our football team, including the quarterbacks, as far as studying the film and studying what he’s supposed to do and how he’s supposed to do it,” Muschamp said.
His first real test of the season — and biggest in two years — comes against Cooper.
A 6-foot-1 junior from Miami, Cooper has 33 catches for 454 yards and two touchdowns in three games. No other Crimson Tide receiver has double-digits receptions.
“Coop’s got really good size, very quick for a guy his size,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “He’s got explosive speed. He’s exceptionally good against press, coming off the ball, but he’s also very good coming out of a break. Most of the time the defender gets beat either on the release or out of the break. A lot of guys are pretty good at one and maybe not as good at the other. And he has really good hands and good ball skills.
“So he’s the complete package when it comes to a guy that is a pretty complete player. He’ll probably get a lot more man-to-man type coverage in this game, and it’ll be interesting to see how he handles that. He does a good job with it in practice.”
Cooper leads the nation in receptions and ranks third in receiving yards, giving inexperienced quarterback Blake Sims a reliable, go-to target.
Cooper caught 59 passes for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman in 2011. He broke a 62-year-old school record for TD receptions and topped Alabama’s freshman mark for catches, yards and touchdowns set by Julio Jones in 2008.
He’s shown significant strides already this season, especially with the way he’s handled adversity.
“You just have to know that sometimes you’re going to have a bad play,” he said. “And Coach knows that. He’s coached many players, and every player that he’s coached, none of them were perfect, so I had to realize that I wasn’t perfect, and I’ll have a bad play and just forget about it and move on.”
Florida’s secondary is trying to do the same. The unit was worked for a bunch of big plays in a triple-overtime thriller against Kentucky. Hargreaves was the lone exception — one reason he’ll spend most of Saturday singled up against Cooper.
“Coop, he’s a great player,” Hargreaves said. “We talked a little bit. We both knew this was coming. He’s excited, I’m excited. We both know the magnitude of the game, and it’s going to be a great matchup.”
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