Jake Coker fits neatly into No. 2 Alabama's quarterback mold
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) Jake Coker won the team over even when Alabama lost the game.
Coker came off the bench to take charge of the offense and lead No. 2 Alabama back from a 20-point deficit against Mississippi . Even though the Crimson Tide couldn't complete the comeback, there was no longer a question of who was the Crimson Tide's quarterback.
''I think he won the team over with the way he competed in the game,'' Alabama coach Nick Saban said. ''I think that was probably the most significant thing that happened for Jake. And I think rather than worrying about what he was supposed to do and trying to be perfect, he just went out and played for the first time.
''I think he gained a lot of confidence. I think we gained a lot of confidence. I think the players gained a lot of confidence. Since that time, there's been no doubt who the leader of the offensive team is.''
With all that being the leader of an Alabama offense entails.
That means being efficient if not dynamic, poised if not prolific. Mostly, it means winning - titles not just games. Coker has guided the Tide (12-1) into the playoffs against No. 3 Michigan State on Dec. 31 in Arlington, Texas, and also been selected a captain by his teammates.
So far, Coker has neatly fit the bill of Alabama national championship passers like AJ McCarron, Greg McElroy and Jay Barker. He's also thrown in a dose of never-say-slide bravura when he's running that teammates love, even if it makes coaches cringe.
Coker is the least heralded of the playoff quarterbacks that include a Heisman Trophy finalist (Clemson's Deshaun Watson), a celebrated walk-on (Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield) and a potential first-round pick in the next NFL draft (Michigan State's Connor Cook).
Coker has a Heisman winner to hand off to in tailback Derrick Henry and a relentlessly stingy defense to support him.
In some ways, that just comes with the territory of being Alabama's quarterback, who sometimes gets scant credit outside the state thanks to all those stars dotting the roster.
''Sure, maybe not a lot of us are first-round picks or NFL stars or anything like that,'' said McElroy, now an SEC Network analyst. ''But we did a really good job making the people around us better as college players.
''Certainly we've all benefited from having great players around us, but what's wrong with that? Should we apologize?''
He said Coker has improved in intangibles like leadership and confidence as the season has progressed.
The Tide lost the one game the graduate transfer from Florida State, last season's backup, didn't start.
Cooper Bateman got the nod against Ole Miss in a 43-37 loss. Coker, who led three fourth-quarter touchdown drives, chuckles when asked if that made him mad.
''Yeah, I wasn't happy, but that's part of it,'' he said. ''I wasn't about to be a distraction to other guys or in any way try to take the attention off Ole Miss. That was the last thing I wanted to do. So I made sure I was still supportive (in) every way I could.''
He put up similarly pristine passing lines in Alabama's two biggest games to date. Coker was 18 of 26 for 204 yards in the SEC championship game against Florida and 18 of 24 for 184 yards against then-No. 4 LSU.
Coker has thrown eight interceptions but only two in the last seven games. It doesn't matter much that he's middle-of-the-pack nationally in the major passing categories, except for a completion percentage that's 17th-best.
Championships, not yards or NFL success, are how `Bama quarterbacks are ultimately judged.
In fact, when two-time national champion quarterback McCarron led Cincinnati to a win over San Francisco last week he was the first ex-Alabama quarterback to start and lead an NFL team to victory since Jeff Rutledge in 1987. NFL starters McElroy (0-1), Rutledge (0-2) and Brodie Croyle (0-10) had tried and failed since then.
It was a lengthy drought for a program that's produced the likes of Joe Namath, Bart Starr and Ken Stabler.
For now Coker is more focused on trying to join the exclusive club of `Bama's national championship quarterbacks.
He's a fairly low-key guy who'd rather hunt or fish than face TV cameras and reporters' tape recorders. Coker said being named captain is more meaningful to him than ''any honor you could possibly get.''
He gives an aw-shucks response when asked if he likes being a local celebrity, saying he mostly hangs out at home or with friends.
''I don't see myself as that,'' Coker said. ''I just play football, and I'm having fun.''
And winning games, too.