Is Jake Coker the Big Arm Alabama's Been Missing Under Saban?

Ray GlierCollege Football National ColumnistAugust 22, 2014

MOBILE, Ala. — How many times has the question been asked, “What would Alabama do with a Sam Bradford or Andrew Luck or Teddy Bridgewater or some other first-round talent at quarterback?”

The Crimson Tide under Nick Saban have had first-round picks at nearly every position but not the most important one. What if 'Bama joined the modern age of the game and could really throw the ball for a change?

We are about to find out if Jake Coker is the guy who is going to enable the Tide to do that.

Alabama is the essence of complementary football, with the offense, defense and special teams working hand in hand. But what if Coker can elevate Alabama's passing game and make it as formidable as Bobby Petrino’s at Louisville or Jimbo Fisher’s at Florida State?

Judging from a pass-heavy Aug. 16 scrimmage, Coker, the transfer from Florida State, is not there yet. He was not Bradford, Luck or Bridgewater. He was just a new quarterback trying to learn a playbook in three weeks and find his way with a new set of receivers nine months after undergoing serious knee surgery (meniscus).

It is a daunting task, and Coker scuffled, according to various people who witnessed the closed scrimmage.

In the scrimmage, Blake Sims, a fifth-year senior, completed more passes than Coker and looked more comfortable in the competition for the starting job. Coker threw a superb deep ball early in the scrimmage for a touchdown to Kenyan Drake, but he struggled mightily after that or looked like he was struggling because of dropped balls and some defensive pressure.

After a string of strong practices in the week leading up to the scrimmage where he appeared to seize the job, Coker fell back into a tie.

The scrimmage aside, those who have seen Coker’s skill set are convinced he is going to be the transcendent Alabama quarterback, the big arm the Tide have won big without for seven years under Saban.

“I will not be surprised if Coke-boy is in the middle of the Heisman thing before the season is over. He’s my guy, will talk about Coke-boy all day,” said former Florida State running back Devonta Freeman. “If Jameis Winston is a first-round pick of the NFL, then Jake is a first-round pick. If they came out next year, they would be the top two quarterbacks. I tell you no lie.”


Could Share Starting Job

Coker, for now, is not the obvious starter for the Tide’s Aug. 30 opener in the Georgia Dome against West Virginia. He got frustrated in the scripted, pass-heavy scrimmage on Aug. 16, and that is a no-no in the Saban structure.

In a practice a few days later, throwing with the other quarterbacks across the field during an open media period, Coker looked mechanical and did not display what scouts call “quick twitch” or burst in his motion. On a simple out route in a drill against air, Coker threw the ball two feet behind the receiver.

Is he the guy, or isn’t he?

Saban said Tuesday in a post-practice press conference that "somebody has got to take the job," which is a telling comment. Coker has not stepped up as expected.

There were no statistics kept in the Aug. 16 scrimmage, but Coker, who is not being made available to speak to the media, appeared to have completed just 30 percent of his passes and threw three interceptions. Alabama abhors the idea of a quarterback giving the other team field position with interceptions.

So, when the season begins, the storyline at quarterback might be Blake and Jake, a dual system, because the duel was not settled in August. This isn’t usually the way Saban operates, but it could be a two-man job-share for the first three games—WVU, Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss—with a starter to be declared by the time Alabama plays Florida in the fourth game of the season.

The scrimmage aside, no one is jumping off the Coker bandwagon.

“There is a competition going on at Alabama for quarterback, I respect that,” David Morris, Coker’s Mobile-based quarterback coach, said in mid-August. “But I will say this. I roomed in college and competed for four years with the first pick in the NFL draft [Eli Manning], and Jake, physically, is as talented as anybody I have ever been around.

"What made and makes Eli so good is his consistency, poise, toughness, intelligence, humility and work ethic. Jake has a lot of that too.”

”I loved his demeanor,” said Mark Stoops, the Kentucky coach and former FSU defensive coordinator. “You could see this guy coming. He has what it takes and can do it all. Coach Fisher would put pressure on him in practice, and he handled it. There is no question he can be a quality quarterback in the SEC.”


Physical Skills Galore

The people who know Coker can’t help but raise hosannas and declare him as the ascendant starter. He has mouthwatering skills. Look at the football above his ear, not down behind his ear, and the vertical, quick release. He has nimble hand-wrist action, the ability to shoot free throws with a football, which every quarterback needs and the rest of us call “touch.”

There is arm strength galore. Alabama wide receiver Chris Black said the ball is “humming” when it is on the way. The rule for receivers is hands up around Coker, or the ball is going to smack you in the facemask.

There is a video featured on that Morris and Coker made in the spring of 2010. Just watch.

Morris had already applied some polish to Coker’s mechanics, but this is still Coker before the end of his junior year of high school when he was 16. Look at the ball coming out with that burst in motion. Watch the receivers stay in stride as they grab his throws.

Coker has had Morris coaching him the last four years, along with the quarterback-minded Fisher and one of the best quarterbacks coaches in the country, FSU assistant Randy Sanders. Alabama assistant coach Lane Kiffin might have struggled as a head coach, but Kiffin is a fine quarterbacks coach and has been working with Coker, too.

A lot more polish has been added in four years.

In this era of the quarterback, where the ball is spit out to receivers covering the field and defenses are constantly in backpedal, does 'Bama finally have a monster instead of a manager? Judging by this preseason, we’re not sure.

Fisher is sure.

"Including what they've had, he's much more talented than anything they've had," he told D.C. Reeves of "I don't mean to discredit the previous guys. They were all great. But this guy is extremely talented. Arm and mind."


A Close Second to Jameis Winston

Coker is 6'5.5", 240 pounds, which is 10 pounds more muscle than his listed weight. Coker was “beaten out” for the starting quarterback job at FSU in 2013 by redshirt freshman Winston, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy and lead FSU to the national championship.

The competition between the two in the spring and August 2013 stirred debate on the Seminoles. Is Winston really better?

It was that close. Fisher has even told NFL scouts it was down to the wire. He said there was legitimate debate in his mind throughout camp about who was better. Freeman saw it up close. “Coke-boy made Jameis better, Jameis made Coke-boy better,” he said.

After Winston won the job, Coker was able to transfer from FSU to Alabama and play right away because he earned an undergraduate degree in May. At Alabama, Coker, like Winston at FSU, was expected to be the obvious choice as the starter, but Sims is pushing Coker the same way Coker pushed Winston.


From an Athletic Family

So, who is this guy?

Growing up, Coker's heroes were not football players, but soldiers. His grandfather, Al, his father Bryant’s father, was on a PT boat in World War II in the Philippines. Jake’s half-brother, Patrick, flies A-10s for the U.S. Air Force.

Coker got some of his toughness from both, as well as his dad, a Mobile fireman. At 11 years of age, Jake was playing pickup football with Patrick when Jake dove for a pass on the sideline. The out-of-bounds was the street next to the field. Jake caught the pass and bounced off the pavement but held on to the ball.

He was still holding the ball when Patrick rushed over, not to commend him for the catch and toughness but to shout, “Incomplete, your foot was out of bounds when you caught it.”

Coker’s athleticism is a product of work ethic as much as it is genetics. Patrick played football for the Air Force Academy his freshman year. Coker’s half-sister, Shelley Spires, is starting her freshman year at the Air Force Academy on the volleyball team. His mother, Michelle Spires, is considered one of the best tennis players in Mobile. His father is a sturdy 6'1" and works out regularly at 66 years of age. He was a college baseball player.

Coker did not go to football camps and enter the recruiting grinder until the summer before his senior season. He was having too much fun playing summer basketball, in addition to being a superb pitcher.


A Multisport Star in High School

You should be intrigued by that athleticism. Coker was first-team All-State 5A in Alabama in basketball. He was the Player of the Year in Mobile, which has plenty of basketball talent. Coker had point-guard skills but played inside because his team lacked height.

Jimmy Perry, Coker's high school coach at St. Paul's Episcopal in Mobile, said Coker was 6'2", 200 pounds his junior year. His senior year, Coker grew to 6'3", 215 pounds. “His sophomore year in high school, he was probably a better basketball player than football player,” Perry said.

Coker not only adored football and basketball (and could pitch), but he also won the 5A state competition in the javelin—not to mention he’s a terrific shot out in the woods, with rifle or bow.

“I was with him when he killed his first deer with a bow. I filmed it,” said Ethan Stokley, one of Coker's best friends and a receiver for St. Paul's. “Jake loves hunting more than anything. Any chance he gets, he is up there in the woods. ”

Coker fishes, too, and several times this summer, he met some former FSU teammates and current Alabama teammates for a fishing excursion.

“When you meet this kid, you fall in love with him because he is so genuine and humble,” said Perry, a former assistant coach at Auburn under Tommy Tuberville and now the coach at St. James School in Montgomery.

In 2011, Coker graduated from St. Paul’s Episcopal, the same school that produced former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. In his junior year at St. Paul’s, when most elite quarterbacks are getting offers from colleges, Coker ran a wing-T misdirection offense. The Saints did not have enough offensive-line size for a pro-style offense, so Coker did not compile a lot of passing tape to show recruiters.

In his senior season, with another year of weight training for his line, Perry installed a more pass-oriented offense, and Coker thrived. He was able to pass, but Coker was still a playmaker with his feet.

Perry remembers when the Saints were trying to hold off powerhouse Vigor and faced 3rd-and-4 from the 50. Vigor sold out to stop a sweep, but Perry had Coker keep on a naked bootleg. He ran down the middle of the field untouched for the clinching score.

“We did something like that against Spanish Fort, too, misdirection, only the play wasn’t in the playbook. We kinda just put it in on the spot,” said Stokley. “They had a lot of good players; Jake outran them all for the touchdown.”


In Demand as a Recruit

Coker finally went to some football camps in June 2010, before his senior season at St. Paul’s. He visited Tennessee, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Duke and Florida State. He did not attend a camp at Alabama. By the time the schedule opened for the Alabama camp, Coker was worn out and could not muster the energy.

His first collegiate football offer came from Arkansas State, whose assistant coach was Tyler Siskey, a former coach at St. Paul’s and now the director of player personnel at Alabama. Hugh Freeze was the head coach at Arkansas State when it offered Coker a scholarship.

When it news broke that Coker was going to transfer from Florida State, Freeze, now at Ole Miss, inquired about Coker, but with the Rebels faithfully behind Bo Wallace in 2014, Coker was looking at bench time again and starting in 2015.

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, who groomed Peyton and Eli Manning for the NFL and is a confidante and mentor to Morris, pulled Morris aside in Durham and said, “David, this kid is going to be special,” and put an offer on the table.

Dameyune Craig, then the Florida State quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator, convinced Coker to come to Tallahassee for the June camp in 2010. Fisher watched Coker throw and then marched him and his father into the head coach’s office and offered Coker a scholarship on the spot.

“You’re going to be a first-round pick in the NFL,” Fisher told them. That Jimbo and Jake were devoted hunters made it a bond.


Not Lacking Physical and Mental Toughness

But what about intangibles? The leadership and poise against the blitz?

Freeman remembers a series in practice when the FSU starters were sagging on offense. Coke-boy had the reins. “No more of this s--t,” he barked. “Let’s go, get this going.” The offense snapped to attention, Freeman said.

In the Wake Forest game in 2013, Coker suffered a knee injury in the second half (a torn meniscus). It was wrapped on the sideline, and he went back in the game for several series. He finally limped off. Later, Coker was asked why he didn’t take himself out of the game, and he said an anonymous FSU lineman was grimacing in pain from his own injury, and Coker wasn’t about to beg off.

The intangibles showed up bigger when Winston beat out Coker for the starting job. “He was disappointed and upset that he was not the starter, but not bitter,” Stokley said. “He always said to me ‘I’m not doing anything to mess with this team or separate them just because I’m not the starter.’”


Strong But Injury-Prone

Quarterbacks are not supposed to be put together the way Coker is put together. Morris put some pictures up on a screen in his office of Winston and Coker standing next to each other with broad smiles.

ACC defensive linemen talked about how difficult it was to get the 6'4" Winston to the ground, but just look at Coker. He is an inch and a half taller and 10 pounds heavier. His shoulders are wider than Winston’s. Coker benched 375 in the summer weight room at Alabama.

But Alabama should shudder at the thought of Coker trampling defenders because bad things can happen when quarterbacks run, and they have. The red flag for this new Red Elephant is that Coker has suffered three injuries—broken foot, shoulder, torn meniscus in his knee—and he has never even been a starter.

That should give some pause to Alabama fans and make them understand that Sims must be ready when called upon.

Here is the other thing to consider about Coker: He better be good, for the sake of the Southeastern Conference.

After losing a slew of juniors the last couple of seasons to the NFL draft and all the NFL-style quarterback talent from 2013, the SEC may not boast a great team in 2014. Alabama might be a great team, but it depends on the mystery man at quarterback or whether Sims is enough of a playmaker.

Perry and all the others overcrowding the Coker bandwagon cherish their well-rounded QB. And they do not fear for 'Bama or the SEC.

“Do they want a playmaker or somebody to run the football team? With him, they have both,” Perry said, “They have a decision-maker back there who knows where to go with the ball, and they have a guy that, when things go bad, is athlete enough to get the offense out of trouble.

“Jacob has been in some doggone good competition with EJ Manuel and Jameis Winston. He’s had to bring his A-game to practice every day. When you are in second place, you have to pedal faster.”

Coker has been pedaling in place as a career backup. He has not lost his ambition, but can Coker find his sharpness finally as a starter?

A lot is riding on the shoulders of Coke-boy.


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