The play that best defines Cooper Bateman’s career so far won’t be found on any of his highlight films.
It happened during the summer of 2012, when the then four-star quarterback took his place among the nation’s elite at Nike’s The Opening, the biggest recruiting showcase of the year.
During a 7-on-7 game, Bateman dropped back, found his receiver and uncoiled his athletic 6-foot-3, 196-pound frame.
“He throws a pick, and it’s a five-star DB,” said Scott Cate, Bateman’s former high school offensive coordinator. “I don’t remember the kid’s name who intercepted him, but the kid’s returning it, and Cooper tracks him down and tags him. I mean, he turned around and tracked him down.”
Battling to become Alabama’s next starting quarterback this season, Bateman’s road to success hasn’t been easy. The redshirt junior overcame three head coaching changes in high school before joining Alabama in 2013. Now in his fourth year of college, Bateman has survived two offensive coordinators, a demotion to wide receiver and a failed first collegiate start.
He returns this year as the only Crimson Tide quarterback to take a collegiate snap. However, even with his veteran status, questions marks surround the junior less than a week away from Alabama’s season opener against Southern California.
Doubt Bateman all you want. Talk about his lack of arm strength and question his ability to man Alabama’s high-powered offense this season.
He’s used to the adversity. He’s heard it all before, and he doesn’t care. The junior has his eyes on the Tide’s starting job and he’s ready to track it down.
“I think he’s very comfortable being uncomfortable,” Cate said. “From what I’ve seen, the unknown doesn’t bother him. Not knowing what’s happening tomorrow or the next day, he just doesn’t think like that. He thinks on a day-to-day, play-by-play basis.”
Hell and back
Former Cottonwood High School assistant coach Matt Martinez doesn’t try to sugar coat it — there were times when Bateman hated him.
“He really didn’t like me,” Martinez said with a laugh. “I was kind of the (jerk) that put him through some of the things that made him successful as a football player.”
Martinez, who graduated Cottonwood a couple of seasons before Bateman, was one of a few coaches that took the then lanky quarterback “to hell and back” from his senior season to the spring before his freshman year at Alabama.
Bateman was put through a high-intensity routine that integrated CrossFit techniques with typical football training, allowing him to add strength while maintaining his endurance. He was also put on a strict eating regimen, complete with text alerts telling him when and what to eat.
“That kid was dedicated,” former Cottonwood assistant Tony Trujillo said. “He really stuck his mind to it. He wanted to increase his weight, and he was determined to do that.”
The results were dramatic.
In just a few months, Bateman added 30 pounds of muscle, filling out his frame and adding the bulk needed to compete at the college level.
While the harsh workouts strengthened his physique, they also helped shape his character. The road to college success had no room for high-school distractions.
“He was late for a workout once, so I made him chug a half gallon of milk and then jump on the treadmill.” Martinez said.
Bateman didn’t make it far that day.
However, the incident didn’t slow the quarterback down. While Martinez’s goal every workout was to break the quarterback and take him to his limit, he admits reaching that level was challenging with Bateman.
“I’ve dealt with a lot of athletes during my six years playing college football and outside as well,” Martinez said. “Cooper is one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever met. He’s just got tenacity, he doesn’t give up. There is no quit in him.”
Changes and challenges
Bateman needed that drive to make it through a challenging high school career. Surrounded by change, the quarterback played under three different coaches during his time at Cottonwood.
Perhaps the biggest blow came after his junior season, when Cate was forced to step away from the program after a Utah rule was enacted disallowing donors who give more than $499 over the course of a year from coaching. Cate, a millionaire, has freely admitted to giving millions to the Cottonwood program.
Cottonwood finished 3-8 during Bateman’s senior year. The poor season was coupled with a run-based offense that often times didn’t allow the quarterback to play to his full potential.
“He never complained,” Martinez said. “There is nothing that can really take him off his route. He had Scott’s offense, pro-style — he knew what he was doing. He got into a completely different offense where they were running the ball. They had the No. 1 kid in Utah, and they had a head coach come in and say, ‘Let’s run the ball and not utilize Cooper.’
“But Cooper just stuck with the plan. He was like, ‘This is what Coach needs me to do,’ He just put his head down and did it, without blinking.”
The new offense wasn’t ideal for Bateman’s recruitment, but it didn’t stop him either. According to Cate, Bateman received more than 60 offers from all around the country. He was rated as a four-star recruit by 247Sports and was tabbed the No. 80 player in the nation and the fourth best pro-style quarterback.
Road less traveled
An April visit to Tuscaloosa during his junior year sealed the deal.
During an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune in 2012, shortly after he committed to Alabama, Bateman described driving into what he felt like a “home away from home,” during his visit to the University.
Ask any of his former coaches, and they’ll tell you it was a sit-down meeting with Alabama head coach Nick Saban that ultimately swayed the quarterback to make the 1,800-mile move away from home.
“It just seemed like after he went to Alabama, he was just different,” Trujillo said. “It was almost like after he met Saban and saw the culture of all that success and that work ethic and everything that comes with that, there was just something different about him. You could tell that something he had dreamed about.”
The pick came as somewhat of a surprise to some. At the time, Alabama already had quarterbacks AJ McCarron, Blake Sims and Alec Morris on its roster. The Tide also brought in three-star quarterback Parker McLeod and was taking walk-on Luke Del Rio, another three-star quarterback, in its 2013 class to join Bateman.
“We talked about it and I told him, ‘You can go play four years almost anywhere in the country. Or would you rather play two years at Alabama?’” Cate said. “He said, ‘I want to play my two years at Alabama.’”
Adversity followed Bateman to Alabama.
The quarterback redshirted his first year on campus before serving as the team’s holder on field goals during his freshman season. Heading into his sophomore season last year, he was projected to fight for the starting job but was demoted to wide receiver after a disappointing spring.
Bateman worked his way back, emerging as a contender for the job again in the fall. From there, he entered the Tide’s opener against Wisconsin still battling with Jake Coker. Bateman completed 7 of 8 passes against the Badgers for 51 yards. The following week he went 11-for-17 for 98 yards and a touchdown with an interception against Middle Tennessee State.
The performance caught the attention of coaches, as Bateman was handed his first start against Ole Miss in Week 3. The plan was to catch the Rebels off guard with Bateman’s athleticism. However, he was unable to move the ball in Ole Miss territory and later threw an interception that helped set up a Rebels touchdown. After completing 11 of 14 passes for 87 yards, Bateman was replaced by Coker.
While Coker was unsuccessful at leading a comeback, his performance against Ole Miss helped him cement the job for good. Bateman went on to attempt just 14 more passes the rest of the season.
“We talked about it from Day 1, I told him, ‘College football is a marathon, it is not a sprint,’” Cate said. “You just have to keep showing up every day, doing your job, and he’s just never wavered.”
Now in a familiar spot, the redshirt junior is once again fighting for the one thing he desires most — another shot to prove himself.
Despite his experience, many doubters still question Bateman and prefer Hurts, who arrived on campus in December and has displayed a “Wow” factor in practice that has made fans curious.
For Bateman, the biggest perceived shortcoming is a lack of arm strength in recent performances.
Former Cottonwood coaches laugh at those critiques, remembering the countless long balls the quarterback dropped in to receivers during high school.
“I don’t understand where people get his arm strength,” Martinez said. “I mean if it’s an 80-yard ball and the other guy can through it 5 more yards, then sure. But, Cooper’s got one of the heaviest balls I’ve ever felt. The impact and the velocity that comes out of his arm is the fastest I’ve ever seen.”
Bateman earned his degree in May, meaning if he doesn’t win the starting job he would be free to transfer to any school in the nation to pursue a graduate degree.
The thought, however, has never entered the quarterback’s mind. Bateman has one goal — to be Alabama’s starting quarterback.
He isn’t stopping until he tracks it down.
“He’s the most level-headed child I’ve ever coached,” Cate said. “I mean that kid does not waiver one iota. ... If something happens, he just puts his head down, figures it out and makes the best of it.”