Often criticized Alabama QB Jake Coker could win over Tide fans with national title
AUBURN, Ala.—The loyalists lined up along a fence, gawking at the crimson-clad figures on the other side as Alabama players filed out of the visitors' locker room at Jordan-Hare Stadium moments after beating Auburn 29–13 in last Saturday's Iron Bowl. The Crimson Tide's bus rumbled a few yards away, just beyond a table stacked high with boxes full of Chick-fil-A. One by one, passing Alabama players grabbed dinner and climbed onto the team charter.
But one player lingered before taking a seat on the bus. Shaggy-haired quarterback Jake Coker sat in a folding chair, rehashing the victory with a gaggle of reporters. Asked to describe his first win over Auburn, Coker paused. "Indescribable," he said.
Later, Coker said he hoped to hear from members of his family. Growing up in Mobile, Ala., the longtime Crimson Tide fan routinely clashed with Auburn faithful on his mother's side. Now, the senior expected a few not-so-friendly text messages. "I haven't checked my phone yet," he said. "I can't imagine what's on there."
The true measure of an Alabama quarterback often boils down to one question: Did you beat Auburn? That query usually requires a follow-up: Why not? Or, How many times? But Coker, whose record will forever be unbeaten in the Iron Bowl, knows recent Tide quarterbacks have done more to define their legacies.
Coker's biggest step to date in authoring a chapter of Crimson Tide history will come on Saturday, when Alabama faces Florida in the SEC title game. A win would bring a second straight conference crown and a College Football Playoff berth. A loss would be unthinkable, especially with the Tide as heavy favorites.
Though Coker hasn't earned many headlines this season, Alabama's championship hopes could rest in the hands of their well-traveled quarterback.
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Coker grew up a devout follower of the gospel of Alabama football in Mobile, just three and a half hours south of Tuscaloosa. As a high school player he backed up future Crimson Tide quarterback A.J. McCarron at St. Paul's Episcopal School. By the time McCarron left for Alabama after the 2008 season, the Saints had suffered a mass exodus of talent. The previous staff had been fired, and new coach Jimmy Perry installed a misdirection Wing-T offense just to keep the team afloat.
In 2010, however, St. Paul's reloaded and installed a pro-style scheme, one that better suited Coker. As a senior, he responded by compiling 1,863 yards of offense and 21 touchdowns, leading his team to a 10–2 mark and a berth in the state semifinals. "You could tell he was going to have the measurables to play the position," McCarron says. "It was just whether he'd progress over time, and he's done a great job of that."
Even at an early age, Coker was fiercely competitive. "He doesn't like to lose," says Chris Boudreaux, his teammate at St. Paul's and now a defensive end at Wofford. "We'd go over to his house after practice and play pool basketball to cool off after two-a-days. Even then, he didn't lose."
Thanks to just one year in a pro-style system, Coker earned a three-star rating by most recruiting services and committed to Florida State before his senior season. He redshirted in 2011 and then battled for—and eventually lost—the Seminoles' starting job to Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston two seasons later. With Winston slated for at least one more college season, Coker opted to transfer to Alabama. As luck would have it, Coker would compete to replace his former high school teammate, McCarron, as the Crimson Tide's quarterback.
Coker arrived in Tuscaloosa amid plenty of fanfare in the summer of 2014. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher had added to the hype by describing Coker as the most talented quarterback of Nick Saban's tenure. But Saban clearly disagreed, tabbing redshirt senior Blake Sims as the starter during fall camp. Sims would go on to lead the program to an SEC title and a playoff berth. Meanwhile, Coker played sparingly in six games.
"So much about playing the quarterback position is comfort within the offense," says Greg McElroy, a former Alabama quarterback who won the 2009 BCS national title and is now an SEC Network analyst. "I thought from a talent standpoint, Jake had everything you could want in a player. But obviously he was not able to overtake a guy who'd been in the offense for four years."
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Coker entered his final off-season facing criticism that he hadn't reached his true potential. The talk grew louder when Saban opted against naming a starter in spring practice. If Coker was such a savant, why hadn't he taken control of an open competition? But Coker was eventually named the starter and led Bama to a season-opening 35–17 win over Wisconsin, completing 15 of 21 passes for 213 yards with a score.
Fourteen weeks later, Coker has started 11 of the Crimson Tide's 12 games this fall. (Redshirt sophomore Cooper Bateman took the first snap against Ole Miss on Sept. 19.) Alabama has won each of Coker's starts. "There's no testing his willingness to win or his character or anything like that," says Alabama center Ryan Kelly. "He's shown that week-in and week-out ever since he became the starter. The more he starts, the more confidence he's shown in the locker room. I think guys have picked up on that."
Like McCarron and McElroy before him, Coker isn't likely to throw for 400 yards with five touchdowns in a game. He ranks eighth in the SEC in yards per attempt (7.3) and sixth in passing yards per game (190.4). But Saban's quarterbacks have rarely put up big numbers. The coach demands smart decision-making and poise to earn the keys to his offense. For Coker, that recipe has proven prolific behind Alabama's offensive line and bruising junior running back in Derrick Henry.
Coker has stood tall in nearly every game. Against Auburn he completed 65% of his throws and delivered a huge play in the third quarter. Facing a second-and-four in Auburn territory, Coker evaded two defenders and scrambled to hit sophomore ArDarius Stewart for a 34-yard touchdown pass. In an Oct. 24 matchup with Tennessee, Coker led the Tide's go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter and threw for a key third down to help cement a 19–14 win. On Oct. 10, Coker's third-quarter, 81-yard touchdown pass to freshman Calvin Ridley helped Alabama rally from a 7–3 halftime deficit and beat Arkansas, 27–14.
Since losing 43–37 at home to Ole Miss, the Crimson Tide have won nine straight. During that stretch Coker has completed 70% of his attempts. He has thrown only two interceptions in his last six games. "One thing coach Saban always says is, every possession ends on a kick, whether it's a punt or a field goal," McCarron says. "You're in a good situation as long as you don't turn the ball over."
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At Alabama, the quarterback position can be as political as it is athletic. It's often an unofficial ambassador for an entire state, a representative of a storied tradition much larger than any one player. Tuscaloosa is a place where 90,000 people show up for a spring game. Those fans can be just as passionate when the Tide aren't winning, as well.
Players raised in the state, like Coker and McCarron, grew up immersed in Crimson Tide culture. They understand fall Saturdays can have a very real impact. "I've seen families where their marriage is struggling, they've just lost their job, they're down to their last dollar, but an Alabama win can change their whole life, or turn their year around," McCarron says. "I always kept that perspective and knew what we were playing for."
Echoes McElroy: "There's probably more pressure if you appreciate the magnitude of the position you're currently playing. When I was in college, I knew it was important, but I was naïve with regard to how much it affected people."
Now Coker must shoulder that pressure. How he closes his brief Alabama career might not only impact his state; it will also likely define his legacy. Both McCarron and McElroy—two of Alabama's last three starting quarterbacks—won national championships. The one who didn't, Sims, still reached the playoff. But the reality is Coker has yet to win anything at Alabama. That's why Saturday's matchup with Florida could be a seminal moment in his career.
McCarron and McElroy still remember the weeks leading up to their respective national championship games. McCarron cut off communication with most friends and family, often staying in to play Xbox with his brother and avoid distractions. McElroy mentally framed big games as midseason contests, an effort to distance himself from the gravity of the moment.
Coker is the next Alabama quarterback to follow the same path. "I try to go about it the same way every week," Coker says. "I'm just going to do whatever coach tells me."