When Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher named Jameis Winston the starter in August of last year, you could sense the hesitancy in his voice as a group of anxious reporters huddled around. This was genuine indecision, not the manufactured, company-man reply you’ve grown to expect from a coach delivering news.
He seemed torn—not with the announcement that Winston would start, but that a player of Jacob Coker’s caliber would be relegated to the bench.
Of course, this decision worked out brilliantly. Winston, despite the turbulent path to get there, won the Heisman. Florida State finished the season as national champion. And now, the Seminoles are in a position to add more hardware to the trophy case if all goes accordingly.
It was the right call at the time, and it remains the right call in hindsight. Of course it does. But at the time of his decision, Fisher also provided a scouting report of sorts on his backup quarterback. If his indecision was as genuine as it appeared, Coker might just be the most important and potentially impactful unknown in all of college football.
In January, we learned that Coker would be leaving Tallahassee for Tuscaloosa, eyeing the vacancy left by AJ McCarron.
"We think a lot of Jake and we are excited to have him join our team," Nick Saban said in a statement, via The Associated Press (h/t USA Today). "He is not only an outstanding football player, but he is also a fine young man who we feel will be a great fit with our program at Alabama."
Because Coker stayed at Florida State to graduate in May—which he did earlier this month—he is immediately eligible to play this fall. The only downside to this route is that he was unable to soak up valuable spring reps and hands-on time with coaches.
This part’s important. Not simply due to a player's lost reps, but because what this time told us in his absence. With an opening to make an impression—and perhaps an opportunity to send Coker to the bench once more—the Alabama quarterbacks on the spring roster did anything but instill confidence.
No quarterback completed more than 50 percent of his passes in the Alabama spring game. Cooper Bateman, who was 11-of-24 on the day and found the end zone once, was probably the most impressive. Overall, however, Bateman, Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and true freshman David Cornwell did little to convince you that they were going to steal the job before Coker took his first snap.
Take from a spring game what you will. Heck, take from an entire spring what you will. But with the position still very much up for grabs, the likely starter hasn’t even completed his first pass yet. This much became clear.
When Coker does finally complete that pass—perhaps a quick screen to Amari Cooper to ease right into it—the perception of this team and offense could change entirely.
Here’s what we know about Coker right now: For starters, he has ideal size and build straight out of your dream create-a-player in Madden. While he might not be quite as big as Winston, at 6'5", 230 pounds he’s everything you look for at the position.
In terms of his style and skill set, he moves well for a player of his build. He’s not going to outrun many gifted linebackers, but he’s a threat—much like Winston—to take off and pick up yardage if needed. He also has the arm to go with the physique, and that’s where the excitement about his pairing with Alabama begins to build.
Statistically, at this point, there isn’t much to go off of. He completed 18-of-36 passes for the Seminoles last season and only threw five passes the year before. He has just one touchdown and one interception on his resume.
It’s also worth noting that he’s coming off November knee surgery, although his QB instructor this offseason, David Morris—who just so happened to be AJ McCarron’s instructor as well—saw him multiple times each week and liked what he saw.
"He’s a more experienced quarterback, he's grown into the position,” Morris told Andrew Gribble of AL.com. “He’s had a lot of reps practicing through the years. I was really pleased with how he kind of didn’t miss a whole lot. He didn’t miss a beat. He really looks strong right now."
Despite the lack of experience, the tools are there. It’s why many have assumed that he would be handed the starting-quarterback job all along, even before his competition struggled.
Winning the job is one thing. It’s his potential at this position—with this particular team—that could shake up the national college-football landscape in its entirety.
Even with the questions at quarterback, Alabama will open up in the top five of most preseason polls. Many will likely place the Crimson Tide at No. 2 behind none other than Florida State, and it would be shocking if they fell beyond No. 3.
Preseason polls, of course, mean absolutely nothing—the bane of our football existence—but it is telling that Alabama is garnering this much respect with a glaring opening at the most important position.
Is this a product of assuming Coker will step right in and play well? Or, are many simply assuming that the surrounding talent—especially at positions like running back, tight end and wide receiver—will excel regardless of who is throwing the ball against West Virginia on August 30?
Here’s where it gets interesting.
If Coker is great—not all-world, superhero, Heisman-snatching great, but solid throughout the year—he could quickly become the most important player in all of college football. Even if he’s only “good”—a mistake here and there, sprinkled in with an occasional “wow” moment—that might be good enough for a team with more talent and depth than anyone.
We don’t know if he’ll be either of those things, but we know that uniting a quarterback with incredible physical gifts with the likes of Amari Cooper, O.J. Howard, Robert Foster, T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and others probably deserving mention could—stressing the maybe here—breed fascinating results.
There are no guarantees. Not in this sport, and not for a player still months away from his first practice with his team. His track record doesn’t scream instant success, but it certainly doesn’t scream dramatic failure, either.
That’s what makes Coker so intriguing. Less than a year after he was sent to the bench, he has a new opportunity, a fresh start. More than simply an added luxury at Nick Saban's disposal, Coker is teetering more toward necessity for a team that is one big piece away.