In many ways, Jake Coker is still on that rain-soaked high school football field in Mobile, Alabama, in the spring of 2014. He’s still there getting reps in with a couple of local receivers. They are running routes against no one, and he’s scrambling from a pocket no one is collapsing. He’s throwing darts -- a 15-yard out as he hits his three-step drop, a 30-yard rope he flicks down the middle of the field as he scrambles toward the sideline. He hears thunder in the distance and keeps going.
His dad, Bryant Coker, is still watching from underneath that awning behind the end zone, wondering whether his son will ever get an opportunity. His quarterbacks coach, David Morris, is still confident that if he does, he will show the world how talented he really is. And this reporter is still there trying to document it all, furiously scribbling notes and trying to make sense of the 6-foot-5, 230-pound heir apparent to outgoing Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, who, as luck would have it, was once ahead of Coker on the depth chart at nearby St. Paul's High School.
We are two years and one successful season as a starter removed from that day in south Alabama, yet Coker hasn’t truly left that place of limbo. He’s still proving himself. Doubt still follows him. But instead of being stuck between being a Florida State graduate and an Alabama transfer, he’s now stuck between being Alabama’s game-manager of a quarterback and the kind of leader who gets credit for having taken Alabama where it is today, preparing to play for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T. This reporter, along with many others, still wonders what Coker’s place in history will be when it’s all said and done.
The cruel, inescapable answer is this: If Coker doesn’t lead Alabama to a win against Clemson on Monday, his transformation from near bust to Cotton Bowl Offensive MVP will never get the full attention it deserves. There will be no next season to look forward to. With only one season as a starter, he won’t own any part of the Alabama record books. Coker will return from Arizona to prepare for the NFL draft, and a miraculous season will be obscured by the ridiculous and uniquely Alabama notion of "championship or bust." The following day, or maybe even later that night, we will begin talking about Blake Barnett, David Cornwell and the other candidates to replace him under center next season.
But as we close in on Coker’s final game in an Alabama uniform, it’s important to remember where he started and how far he’s come. It’s important to go back to that field in Mobile and see a quarterback looking for a chance to show what he’s capable of.
After all, how many stories have turned out like his? It broke his heart to leave Florida State, where he knew he couldn’t escape the shadow of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. He then decided to transfer to Alabama and was met with the wrong fairytale ending, losing the quarterback competition to Blake Sims, a former scout-team quarterback and part-time receiver who came out of left field to set a school record for passing yards. Coker didn’t pout, didn’t throw in the towel, didn’t give thought to transferring. He came back and battled. And after being benched in favor of Cooper Bateman in Week 4 against Ole Miss, he went back to work, earning the starting job and the respect of his teammates, eventually leading them to an SEC championship, Cotton Bowl victory and a spot in the national title game.
You can make Monday’s title game about Clemson star quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson all you want. You can say that Alabama will go only as far as its defense and running back Derrick Henry will take it. But you’d be wrong to overlook Coker’s 2,775 yards and 21 total touchdowns and say that he’s been only a bystander to the Crimson Tide’s success.
"He’s pretty much done a good job all year long in terms of doing whatever we’ve asked him to do," coach Nick Saban said after Alabama's 38-0 drubbing of Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. "He’s not a selfish guy at all. He never complains about how we don’t throw it down the field enough. He just tries to do what he can do for his team. I think that’s why he was elected captain by his teammates and he’s respected so much."
Richard Mullaney, a receiver and fellow transfer by way of Oregon State, said he wasn’t shocked that Coker finished the season so strong, failed to toss an interception since mid-November and threw for a career-high 286 yards against Michigan State.
"I'm not surprised by the game, knowing him and knowing what kind of competitor he is," he said. "He just finally got the game to prove it."
Proving it has been, from the beginning, what this season is about for Coker.
All the time it took as he waited for his chance. All the faith his dad and others put in him. All the twists and turns in his journey from backup to full-time starter.
One more game and it’s over. One more win and Coker’s reward is complete.