ESTERO, Fla. — It wasn't until they thought they'd lost him that Alabama fans accepted Blake Sims as their quarterback.
In the spring, all anyone could talk about was super-transfer Jake Coker. Even after Sims beat him out for the Week 1 start, fans and media alike were still waiting for Coker to take the reins.
When Sims left the Florida game in the third quarter with a shoulder injury, the fans finally had their wish. Coker was in. But then a funny thing happened, it didn't seem like they wanted him anymore.
A nervous murmur usually reserved for bona fide stars trickled through Bryant-Denny Stadium. Suddenly it became clear, the Tide faithful missed career-backup Blake Sims. Probably because he was in the middle of turning in a performance for the ages against Florida and the fans were starting to accept that he was the man to lead the Crimson Tide in 2014.
Lucky for Sims and the Tide, his injury proved minor and when emerged out of the north end-zone tunnel a few minutes later, and the fans rose in a unified roar.
They finally approved. He was The Guy.
In many ways, Sims embodies the ideal college football player.
On a team full of superstars and NFL talent, Sims patiently waited his turn. He played everything from running back to safety to scout-team punt rush—anything the coaches asked. His dedication and perseverance earned him the loyalty of his teammates and ultimately the right to lead them.
“Blake is very, very well liked by his teammates” Alabama coach Nick Saban says. “Always willing to help and serve somebody else with what he does, and I think he has a lot of confidence right now. I think his teammates have a lot of confidence in him.”
So, how does a quarterback go from career backup to Crimson Tide folk hero in less than six months? The answer lies in Estero, Florida with quarterback guru Ken Mastrole.
Sims came to Mastrole as a quarterback with one last shot.
After waiting four years for a chance to start at quarterback, Blake Sims saw his window to stardom open briefly when AJ McCarron graduated. But, when Alabama announced the impending arrival of Coker—a big-armed, highly touted quarterback who had only recently lost a close quarterback battle to Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, that window seemed to close.
Sims, an electric athlete but an unpolished passer, was at a crossroads.
He’d been the ultimate team player, watching from the sidelines and playing multiple positions in practice as Alabama won two straight national championships and reached the peak of college football. But he came to Alabama to play quarterback, and he wasn’t going to relinquish that opportunity without a fight.
So Sims and his dad, Sonny, began a search for a private quarterback coach who could help him break through to the next level. They eventually landed on Mastrole, a former journeyman professional quarterback who mentored big names like EJ Manuel, Teddy Bridgewater and Tajh Boyd.
Mastrole’s job was to take Sims from an undersized scout-team signal-caller to an SEC quarterback and a leader of men. No small task.
Ever since their first meeting last spring, Mastrole has been with Sims every step of the way, becoming one of the QB's most trusted mentors and confidants during his wild season as college football’s best underdog story of 2014.
Where Champions Are Made
Ken Mastrole’s office might be the most unassuming of any coach in football.
It’s a short drive from his Estero home and is part of a small shopping center in the community on the west coast of the Florida peninsula.
He pulls up to one of the office spaces and steps out of his black Yukon Denali on a cool and muggy South Florida night in mid-November. He opens the front door and flicks on a light switch. The small space is empty.
Mastrole’s father-in-law lets him use part of his office for his off-the-field film work. Half of it is for custom home building, and half of it is for football.
Mastrole walks toward the back of the unit into a nook with bare walls and an empty desk. On the ground, there are boxes of rolled up blueprints for houses. He pulls out a projector and connects it to his iPad.
Across the room on the opposite wall, the projector shines through the dim light, and he pulls up some pictures and videos of his star pupil from the summer. On the film, Sims still looks like a raw and very much unfinished prospect.
This is where he and Sims spent countless hours breaking down film, studying Lane Kiffin’s offense in the offseason and refining the specifics of Sims’ throwing motion.
The Will to Win
With Coker coming in, Sims’ back was against the wall. But instead of moping, Sims reacted as champions do. He pushed harder.
In March, during Alabama’s spring break, Sims made his first visit to South Florida to train with Mastrole, who began to understand Sims’ potential.
Part of that included learning be a quarterback off the field just as much as on it.
“He was a grinder on the field,” Mastrole says. “But needed to take it to the next level on film.”
Mastrole likes to test his subjects to see how into the program they really are. Most kids, he says, treat it like a school requirement, something they have to do rather than want to.
There was something different about Blake Sims, though.
“He was really pushing me more with texts like ‘I’m ready to go, let’s get to work,’” Mastrole says. “He’s pushing me to challenge him more out on the football. You could see that confidence. We talked about, ‘Man there’s a guy coming in here, and there’s a guy here. Take the job.’”
Sims couldn’t get enough. That competitive fire had gone from a dwindling candlelight to a roaring blaze.
Mastrole saw that fire firsthand in his own home as Sims challenged Mastrole's 17-year-old son to "50 or 60" games of ping pong in a row simply because he was too competitive to walk away.
“On the first visit, what I saw was Blake wanting to learn from him,” Sonny says. “He learned that that’s what he needs to do to get better. That’s what motivated the whole situation. After the first visit, Blake was saying ‘Daddy, I got to get to him more. This is what I need right here.’”
Sims’ first, and only, chance to show his improvement before Coker arrived came on April 19 at Alabama’s spring game. Instead of lighting the world on fire and winning over the fanbase, though, Sims struggled, at least from the outside. He was 13-of-30 passing for 178 yards and two interceptions.
It got so bad, Nick Saban says, that a 10-year-old boy approached the mighty Alabama coach after the game and asked him, “Do we have a quarterback other than Blake Sims?”
Fans and the media wrote Sims off and got busy awaiting the imminent Coker era. Sims kept grinding.
He made two more trips to Estero that summer and continued to hone his skills, and by the time fall camp arrived, Coker wasn’t quite as polished as everyone hoped he could be. The talent was there, but his grasp of the offense was lacking.
So Saban went with his experienced hand in Sims to start the year.
Sims played all but a handful of garbage-time snaps to lead Alabama to a 33-23 win over West Virginia in the Georgia Dome, in front of a large host of Sims’—from Gainesville, Georgia—family and friends.
After the game, Sims trotted over to find his family, including his 5-year-old daughter Kyla, all of whom were smiling ear to ear.
“Out of this world, man. I was really happy for him,” Sonny says of watching that first start. “Because of the loyalty that he had to Alabama. Very proud of Alabama for giving him the opportunity to compete.”
Sims’ journey, though, was just beginning.
Re-inventing the Wheel
When Mastrole is fine-tuning mechanical issues for quarterbacks, he tries to equate movements to real-life motions to simplify things for his students.
There is a “chain reaction,” he calls it, in a throwing motion, where small parts have to come together for one fluid movement to propel a football forward to its intended target. In order to perfect each part of that chain reaction, he tries to isolate the different movements and find an example of a motion for each.
Sims wasn’t exactly a polished passer when he came to Florida for the first time.
“I saw a really sidearm release,” Mastrole said. “I thought his mechanics were kind of screwy or jacked up. They were very long. He has a tendency to get that still.”
So to better compact that release, he had to get Sims’ arm moving closer to his body instead of out to the side.
He had Sims stand up with a wall on his right side and bring the ball back without touching the wall. In another exercise, Sims would hold the ball straight out in front of him, and Mastrole would have him bring the ball back like he was drawing an arrow in a bow.
After it was drawn back, Mastrole told him to bring the ball up like a hammer and follow through to “break glass.”
Over and over, drawing the bowstring, bringing up the hammer and breaking the glass. Eventually, Sims was playing more compact, and it made a difference.
To fix his footwork, Mastrole put him through drills while standing on bleachers, to force Sims to play with more balance in his lower body.
“You do some quirky stuff,” Mastrole says. “But you use simple drills and simple techniques to work on balance and throwing. Stuff like that, things that you know can relate.”
Mastrole filmed his work with Sims so the two could critique it later. After the sessions, they would go back to that modest office, Mastrole on the iPad, Sims sitting next to him, and dissect every throw.
Slowly but surely, Sims' release became tighter and more fluid. He looked like a quarterback, not just a talented athlete throwing a football.
After polishing off that Florida win, an affirming victory for so many reasons, Sims sent a simple text to his quarterback coach and trusted mentor.
“Coach,” he said. “I was out there breaking glass.”
As it must in any Hero's Journey, the adversity eventually came.
On Nov. 8, Sims stood on the sidelines of Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana as LSU kicked a field goal that put the Tigers up by three points with just 50 seconds left. The gold and purple crowd was in a frenzy; it smelled the blood in the water and a chance to end its bitter rival's dream season by handing the Tide a second loss.
Eight hundred-plus miles away in his Estero home, Mastrole sat nervously in his living room watching it all unravel on the field.
To the outside world, it looked like Blake Sims and Alabama’s dream season was crushed. By all accounts, this would have been the end for first-year quarterbacks.
But not for Blake Sims.
In the raucous Tiger Stadium, Sonny watched his son’s sideline demeanor from the stands. He has been to every Alabama game this season and remembered the moment vividly.
There was no doubt in his mind how the game would turn out.
“I saw his body language,” Sonny says. “I know him, I’ve been around him all his life. I said ‘There’s getting ready to be trouble.’ He bounces a certain way where you can tell he’s in a zone. And I saw that bounce.”
Sims took the field and executed like clockwork.
A six-yard completion, a five-yard run. A six-yard completion, a 22-yard completion, a spike. A 16-yard completion put Alabama in field-goal range, where Adam Griffith tied the game.
In overtime, Sims connected with DeAndrew White for a touchdown, and the defense held. Alabama had somehow found a way to win.
Back in Estero, Mastrole’s wife had already gone to bed. “What happened?” she asked him. “Oh my God I can’t even sleep,” he said.
The next day, Mastrole was on the phone with Sonny, when Blake jumped in on the call, unexpectedly.
“Did I have you on the edge of your seat or what?” Sims asked.
A Final Test
Two weeks later, it was all unraveling again, in the worst way possible.
Sims could only watch, after his third interception of the night, as Auburn took a 12-point lead early in the third quarter. Bryant-Denny Stadium had been reduced to a nervous roar, save for the northeast corner, where Auburn fans were at the height of celebration.
It was supposed to be different.
Mastrole was at the game, his first trip to Bryant-Denny and Tuscaloosa. He was sitting in the stands with Sims’ family, ready to see his protege lead a convincing win in person.
But the mistakes piled up. At halftime, Mastrole couldn’t take it any more.
He is a superstitious type. So much so that he had found himself watching plays on the stadium’s big screens instead of down on the field.
He walked down from his seat to the field-level walkway, where a black iron fence separates the sidelines from the stands. For some reason, he wandered over to that northeast corner.
Across the field, Coker started warming up. Was this it? Were Saban and Kiffin about to pull Sims after all they had been through?
But the team that Sims had carried for so much of the season now took their turn to pick him up.
Right tackle Austin Shepherd grabbed Sims on the sidelines. The pair are two of eight fifth-year seniors on this Alabama roster. They’ve seen a lot during their five years in Tuscaloosa.
“Man you’re a game-changer. You know this. You’ve done it all year,” Shepherd told him. “You’ve done it at LSU, you’ve done it everywhere. So like Coach says, forget about the past, just play the next play.’”
Saban sent Sims out for one last chance, and that was all he needed.
Eight plays into the drive, he connected with Amari Cooper on a 39-yard touchdown. On the first play of Alabama’s next possession, Sims again hit a streaking Cooper for a 75-yard score.
Suddenly, he couldn’t miss.
At the start of the fourth quarter, with the offense now going toward the end zone where Mastrole still nervously stood, Sims ran in an 11-yard touchdown to put Alabama up. He found DeAndrew White for a six-yard pass on a rollout to his right. White caught the ball in front of Mastrole, who let out a nervous fist pump, as much emotion as the isolated Mastrole would show during the game.
After throwing his third pick, Sims finished the game 10-of-12 for 183 yards with three touchdowns.
When the game ended, a 55-44 whirlwind Alabama win, Mastrole made his way over to the players’ tunnel. Sims’ family was waiting with the Alabama quarterback, who was signing autographs for wide-eyed kids.
When Sims saw Mastrole, the two shared an emotional embrace.
“He was like, ‘Man I was thinking about you out on the field,’” Mastrole said. “And I was like, ‘About what?’ And he’s just like, ‘You’re coming all the way out to the game, and I’ve got to stay composed.’
“Just funny stuff that we talked about in the offseason about staying dialed in. If it helped or was a key, great. … There are not many quarterbacks that could have bounced back from that game.”
When Alabama faces Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, there will be plenty of questions surrounding the matchup, but none about Alabama’s starting quarterback.
The fans who were so ready for the Coker era to start are firmly behind Sims, who has now broken nearly all of the single-season records McCarron set a year before.
“I knew he had the skills and the confidence,” Sonny says. “But I didn’t see this coming.”
And that 10-year-old kid from A-Day? “He probably jumped on the bandwagon like all the rest of you did,” Saban said.
Marc Torrence is the Alabama lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.