1 ALABAMA

After waiting four years to get a shot to start, Blake Sims caught on instantly to the hurry-up attack, guiding the Tide to a record-breaking season
December 29, 2014

BEFORE BLAKE SIMS there is a quadratic equation. Taken as a whole, the string of letters and numbers and exponents might as well be extraterrestrial launch codes. So Sims and his math teacher at Gainesville (Ga.) High, Allison Worley, break the problem into smaller parts. They identify it as a quadratic equation because one of the variables is squared. They look at each term separately. Every one is taken as a clue, every clue is followed to an answer. It is through this system, bit by bit, that the solution becomes clear.

Before Blake Sims there is an Alabama play call. The cascade of code words and numbers might as well be a quadratic equation. So the Crimson Tide quarterback and his offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffin, break each play into smaller parts. Sims has one call for the line, one for the receivers to his right and another for those to his left. Every piece is a distinct command, every command linked to a specific effect. It is through this system, bit by bit, that the entire field opens up.

Painstakingly, Sims has arrived as the leader of the No. 1 team in the country, his destination achieved, step by step, through critical choices at decisive intervals. He transferred high schools, rehabilitated his academic record and patiently waited until his final autumn for the chance to take over at Alabama. And the 6-foot, 208-pound senior has seized that opportunity to become one of the nation's most efficient passers, throwing for 3,250 yards and 26 touchdowns and guiding a breakneck attack into the national semifinals, a Sugar Bowl showdown with Ohio State.

"I'm going to write Kiffin and [coach Nick] Saban a thank-you note," says Worley. "I'm serious. Each child is an individual, and each one learns differently. Same thing on the football field. You have to figure out what works with what player."

SIMS WAS five when he began playing football. When he wanted to mimic the players he saw on television, his father, Sonny, scattered markers in the yard. "We cut at Winnie the Pooh and circled at Big Bird," Sonny recalls. He was the starting quarterback as a sophomore at Cass High in Cartersville, about 43 miles northwest of Atlanta, and helped spur the Colonels to a 4--0 start in 2007. At that point Sims began to wonder why he'd received so little attention from recruiters. "I just wanted to know the truth," Sims says. "Is it because I'm not good enough? I wanted to be the best. I was willing to do whatever I had to do."

The Simses say that the coaches didn't support Blake's dream of becoming a Division I player. Former coach Rick Casko, who now runs the program at Glades Central High in Belle Glade, Fla., insists he had a "great relationship" with Blake and adds that he believed "all things were possible" for his former quarterback.

Sonny, then a steel-factory worker and later a truck driver, believed Casko was holding Blake back, so he researched other towns and moved his family of seven 65 miles east to Gainesville that winter. The team there had installed a spread offense the previous fall, which suited Blake's dual-threat abilities perfectly. He ran and passed for more than 3,000 combined yards in each of his junior and senior seasons, and received scholarship offers from Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, among others.

The move to Gainesville also gave him time to improve his schoolwork. Sims had arrived with a transcript that prompted Worley to think, NCAA eligibility ain't going to happen. "A lot of D grades," says Tonya Aiken, who is the high school's online course coordinator. She found Sims polite but oblivious to the consequences of a poor transcript. "I said, 'If you make these grades, you will never play at a D-I school. It is impossible. They will not take you,'" Aikens recalls. That jolted Sims into action. He studied for five statewide tests required for graduation. He retook several classes in order to improve his grades to meet NCAA standards and met Worley for 7:30 a.m. homework labs. A load like Sims's—at one point taking four regular classes and two online courses, and studying for graduation tests—is "like a schedule and a half," Aiken says. The Monday after his high school graduation, Sims met with Aiken for summer school and ACT prep.

"You have certain people who always baby you, tell you nothing but positive [things]," Sims says. "Then you have people like them." Worley and Aiken taught him study habits and painstakingly explained challenging concepts, such as those quadratic equations. "That doesn't mean he isn't smart or couldn't get the big picture," Aiken says. "He just likes to take care of the steps one at a time."

Sims suffered in limbo until he passed through the NCAA clearinghouse just before Alabama set its 105-man roster for preseason camp in August 2010. It was late enough that he began taking classes at East Mississippi Community College in Scooba, just in case he wasn't declared eligible in time. But one call from an Alabama compliance officer affirmed the Simses' choice to move to Gainesville. Blake was in, but a much longer wait began.

THROUGH HIS first four seasons in Tuscaloosa (including his redshirt year, in 2010), Sims accomplished the following: He dislocated three toes, tore his gluteus maximus, switched between tailback and quarterback (sometimes playing both positions in the same month, depending on scout-team needs), threw a total of 39 passes, scored four touchdowns—and angered his father. Sonny had always been hyperinvolved in his son's career and wanted to know every detail about Blake's time with the Tide. But before his second season, Blake felt he had to control the flow of information to his father, which didn't go over well at home. "I said, 'I'm your Daddy,'" Sonny says. "He said, 'Daddy, you have to calm down. I got it.' I started feeling like he was a traitor."

After the success Blake has had in his fifth season—his 161.9 passer efficiency rating ranks seventh nationally, and his 9.2 yards per pass attempt ranks fourth—Sonny reluctantly admits that his son made the right call. The evidence sits on an end table in the living room of the house Sonny shares with his wife, Toni, and three of Blake's four siblings: a ball with blake sims emblazoned on it from Senior Day that is signed by every member of the Crimson Tide. It is, inherently, a reward for determination. Sims received it on the day he threw for 312 yards and four touchdowns in a 55--44 win over Auburn in his final home game at Bryant-Denny Stadium. "Players have a lot of respect for him, for the perseverance that he showed here," Alabama coach Nick Saban said after the team's first Sugar Bowl practice. "A lot of people would have thrown in the towel, transferred, done something else."

His performance is especially impressive considering that coming into this season, Sims had to fend off a serious challenge from Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, who was thought to be a superior pocket passer. The 6'5", 230-pound Coker had backed up NFL first-round draft pick EJ Manuel before losing out to current Seminoles starter Jameis Winston. And Sims's inside knowledge of the program was not as much of a strength after Kiffin took over the offense last spring.

So Sims knew he could no longer linger at the back of warmup lines in spring drills, content to let others set the pace. "For a while he was that guy—I'm not playing, what good am I getting out of this?" senior tight end Brian Vogler says. "This spring he turned a whole new page. Now he's in the front of the line, or he's right behind me and he's running up my back. It was a completely different person." Sims had never had a realistic chance to unseat former star AJ McCarron, but the thought of losing his last, best shot at starting unlocked his competitive spirit.

It helped that he already had a relationship with Kiffin, who once spent seven hours in the Simses' living room trying to recruit him to Tennessee. Kiffin almost did; Sims briefly decommitted from Alabama before re-upping when Kiffin moved on to USC. Kiffin helped Sims simplify the play calls and instituted a no-huddle attack so that Sims wouldn't be overwhelmed by too many options. Alabama calls its up-tempo scheme Fastball, and as long as we're mixing sports metaphors, it's been closer to a home run. "Playing fast means not thinking," Sims says. "Being an athlete. Reacting off of stuff." The Tide's 72.9 plays per game are up from 63.5 last season and represent the highest rate since Saban's first season (74.0 in 2007). Their average of 490.5 yards is a school record.

This offense is not remedial. At times Sims has three options on one play—hand off, keep it or throw—based on the defense's reaction. And Kiffin constantly shifts his star receiver, junior Amari Cooper (1,656 yards and 14 TDs), to keep defenses guessing. Sims just follows simple rules out of complex looks. "They create a pretty clear picture for Blake, and he knows exactly what to do when he sees that picture," Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith says. "And if something isn't there, he knows where to go after that. If none of the options are there that he likes, he's able to tuck the ball down and run."

The Alabama coaches discerned how Sims learned, and catered the team's plan to him. And he has been able to identify nuances on film and on the field more frequently. Before facing LSU on Nov. 8, Sims noticed that if the safety had his inside foot back, he would break to the middle in coverage. That dictated which side of the field Alabama could work. His favorite realization occurred when he saw an anxious Tennessee defender cheat to the inside against Cooper on the second series of the game on Oct. 25. Sims checked Cooper out of a slant and into a slant-and-go. The result was a 41-yard touchdown. "I was like, Wow, I really had a Peyton Manning moment," Sims says.

AS SHE steps out of Gainesville High's main office to give a visitor directions, Debbie Little turns and holds a hand to her heart. "We're so proud of our Blake," the receptionist says. The same feeling runs through the Alabama football team. Says center Ryan Kelly, "I probably couldn't name you anybody that doesn't get along with him."

Now the college football world is finally getting to know Sims. He is most relaxed when he's watching cartoons like Tom & Jerry. He is happiest during visits from his five-year-old daughter, Kyla, who was born when Sims was a high school senior. (Sims was married to Kyla's mother, Gainesville classmate Rafaela Souza, for four years; they divorced in 2013.) He's forever on a mission to disarm others and feels that people are puzzles to solve. Vogler, a Georgia native who played on a high school all-star team with Sims, says that the quarterback enjoys studying people. But sometimes his curiosity gets the best of him. On a trip to Oregon for a seven-on-seven tournament before Sims's senior year, Gainesville coach Bruce Miller told an assistant to keep tabs on his quarterback. Miller feared Sims would wander off, start chatting up strangers and miss his connecting flight. Before a Nov. 22 game against Western Carolina, Sims stopped to shake hands with Catamounts coach Mark Speir and then started talking with Speir's 12-year-old son, Jackson. A Western Carolina staffer snapped a photo. This is how Sims came to be the background photo on Jackson's iPhone, replacing the Catamounts' logo.

The impulse to connect with people has been a boon to his team. Sims found out that the notoriously stoic Cooper had borrowed Sims's car from another player without asking the quarterback. Sims teased, "Coop, man, you just took my car, dog?" and elicited a laugh to help break the ice with his go-to receiver. Some teammates need to be cursed at. Some need hugs. Sims probes until he knows what makes a particular player tick. "Whatever I have to do, I'm going to bring your personality out of you, to make you the best player you are," he says.

On a break from Alabama this fall, Sims visited Gainesville High and stopped by Worley's class to say hello. He wound up delivering an impromptu speech to a class of seniors about staying on the right path. After that, Worley privately told Sims she was worried about one particular student. Surprisingly, on the boy's next three tests, he received A's. "We asked the kid, 'What happened?'" Worley says. "He said, 'Blake.'" After the conversation with his former teacher, Sims sent texts to the boy two or three times a week to encourage him. "He truly cares and wants great things from everybody he comes in contact with," Worley says.

All Sims wants now is to lead his teammates to a fourth championship in six seasons. "It's the ultimate dream," he says. "I don't want to be the guy to mess it up." He lists his concerns before the Sugar Bowl: How can I be better? How do I take my weaknesses and turn them into strengths? He's not preoccupied with what a title would mean personally, no matter how long he's been preparing for this moment. It's like his grandmother once told him, an adage Sims paraphrases on a sunny December afternoon: To those who are patient, many blessings come.

OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE

A COACH WHOSE TEAM PLAYED ALABAMA THIS YEAR ASSESSES THE TIDE'S STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES

THE EMPHASIS on tempo works for them. I think [offensive coordinator] Lane [Kiffin] does a great job mixing and matching it all up—and moving Amari Cooper all over the field. He plays every position. He'll be the single receiver, he'll be the inside receiver out of trips, he'll be snugged up next to the left tackle, or he might be motioning across the field. The ability to play faster than they have in the past and move Cooper all over the field causes a lot of problems. You have to know where he is, but he could be anywhere.

Blake Sims manages the game great, and he can make some plays with his feet when needed. That's where the game is going. You're not going to be able to call perfect plays all the time, and if you've got a quarterback who can get out of those bad situations and create something positive, it's beneficial. In the running game, you watch T.J. Yeldon touch the ball, and it's like a different level from everybody else. He's not always going to run you over. He's going to run by you, or he's going to make you go one direction and get you off-balance.

On defense they're like those tough Alabama teams of the past. They've got guys who are hard to move up front, big bodies, and they've still got a lot of twitch to them: They're athletic. To succeed against them, you've got to create run schemes that give you better blocking angles. You can't just come off the ball—fly off the ball—and move these guys. You're going to have to create a lot of misdirection-type stuff, a lot of down-blocking, power-concept-type stuff, just so you can get the proper angles. Even that is easier said than done because they do a lot of stunts and twists and everything to create penetration and a pass rush.

They had some struggles early in the season finding consistency at corner, but they've settled down. Cyrus Jones is a lock-down guy, and Landon Collins is in the right spot every single time. And he's physical. And he can cover. He can do it all.

BY THE NUMBERS

A SNAPSHOT OF WHERE ALABAMA RANKS

OFFENSE

34

RUSHING (209.5 YPG)

21

PASSING (281.0 YPG)

DEFENSE

2

RUSHING (88.7 YPG)

59

PASSING (223.7 YPG)

THEY SAID IT

Every goal we have as a team is still in front of us. We must improve and respond the right way."

Nick Saban, after the Tide's 23--17 loss at Ole Miss on Oct. 4.

8

Rank in fourth-down conversions (.727) among FBS teams

72

Rank in plays per game (72.9) among FBS teams

10

Number of Rivals.com five-star recruits on the roster

PHOTOPhotograph by Jason Parkhurst For Sports IllustratedTHROWING HEAT Sims's quick reactions keep the Tide's no-huddle offense—nicknamed Fastball—humming. PHOTOKEVIN C. COX/GETTY IMAGESIRON MAN In the thrilling 55--44 victory over Auburn, Sims passed for 312 yards and four touchdowns. PHOTOSIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDCOOPER'S TOWN The junior wideout is the toast of Tuscaloosa, leading the nation with 1,656 yards on a school-record 115 catches. PHOTOTODD KIRKLAND/ICON SPORTSWIRE (WITH KIFFIN)WINNING COMBINATION After beating out Coker (below, right) for the job, Sims has partnered with Kiffin (above, far left) to guide an offense that has brought nothing but smiles from Toni and Sonny (above). TWO PHOTOSKEVIN LILES/USA TODAY SPORTS (TONI & SONNY, SABAN)[See caption above] PHOTOBRYNN ANDERSON/AP (WITH COKER)[See caption above] PHOTOJASON GETZ/USA TODAY SPORTSCRIMSON CLAMPDOWN Sophomore defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson (86) is part of a deep and immovable D-line that racked up 28 sacks.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)