Bama's Coker finally gets to play central role for contender
PHOENIX (AP) Jake Coker watched his last national championship game from the sidelines on crutches, and wouldn't have played anyway.
Then the quarterback transferred from Florida State to Alabama and found himself effectively a spectator for another contender. Another lost position battle, with the clock ticking on his college career.
That's Coker's backstory, an improbable journey to the brink of college football's pinnacle: The national championship.
This time he's QB 1 and a team captain heading into Monday night's title game against Clemson and Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson.
''I think it's made me appreciate this year way more than most guys appreciate it,'' Coker said Saturday. It's something he grew up dreaming of in his backyard in Mobile, Alabama, leading his boyhood team to a national title.
Even for a one-year starter, that would mean a sacred spot in Alabama lore.
The Tide arrived at this point in no small part because of Coker's season-long evolution as a quarterback. He's gone from a bit of a gunslinger throwing too many interceptions to more of the Alabama QB prototype with a pristine, playmaking turn in the semifinal rout of Michigan State.
Switch his jersey number from 14 to 10, and it could easily have been fellow St. Paul's Episcopal School product AJ McCarron, who led the Tide to national championships in 2011 and 2012.
When Michigan State loaded up to stop Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Derrick Henry, Coker delivered his best game. He went a Winston- and McCarron-like 25-of-30 passing for a career-high 286 yards and two touchdowns. Afterward, Henry gave the ultimate compliment on Twitter to a player who's been ostensibly the guy behind the guy to two Heisman winners: ''(hash)JakeCoker4Heisman!''
Coker had lost out to Winston - the eventual No. 1 NFL draft pick - at Florida State. Hardly a knock on his own abilities.
He was still recovering from a knee injury when Florida State beat Auburn in the 2013 championship game.
Ask him about that experience now, and Coker mentions the similarities between those Seminoles and the current Tide team. He mostly skirts any frustrations or concerns about his career he might have been feeling, quickly turning the personal back to the collective. But there's no question he's happy with where his college days are ending.
''Five years ago, I never thought I'd be in the position I'm in now,'' Coker said. ''It's pretty special, and looking at it now there's no place I'd rather end up. I think it made me a lot better, a lot stronger, the things I've been through.
''It makes things a little easier. Things that used to be a big deal aren't as big. I'm just having the time of my life right now playing for Alabama.''
That part didn't come easy, either. He lost another position battle to quarterback-turned-running back-turned quarterback Blake Sims, who wound up setting the Tide's single-season passing record but was mostly unknown at the time.
That left Coker with one more chance. This time he came out on top.
Coker forced the ball at times early in the season, throwing six interceptions in his first six games and even getting replaced as the starter in the loss to Mississippi. He's only thrown two picks in the last seven games.
''I might have put a little bit too much pressure on myself because it was my last year,'' said Coker, who's completing 73 percent of his passes over the past 10 games. ''If it didn't happen, it wasn't going to happen. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself. I just wanted to get the job done so bad. Thank goodness it's turned out the way it has.''
Along the way, Coker became respected enough that his teammates voted him one of the permanent captains, along with Henry, center Ryan Kelly and linebacker Reggie Ragland.
''He had to earn the trust of other people, earn their respect,'' Kelly said. ''He never pushed for it. That's just the kind of guy he was. It just kind of happened because of the moral character that he brings every day. As much success as he's had on the field, he's also grown so much off the field with the leadership. Everybody trusts him.''
David Morris, Coker's private quarterback coach since high school, doesn't think his pupil has even approached his talent ceiling yet, not with just one season as a starter. Coker's already dealt with the hard part: The waiting.
''I think when you look back on those moments - I mean, it hurt, it wasn't easy - but you see a lot of patience, you see a great teammate and you see class,'' Morris said. ''But you also see something brewing inside of him that's very unique and very authentic. And you kind of see that fire every week, in my opinion.''
Alabama's hoping it's on full display Monday night.