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Alabama's Jake Coker finally sets foot on big stage

Jake Coker runs against North Carolina State during his days at Florida State. With the Seminoles, Coker only got to attempt 41 passes, completing 21, over two seasons as a backup. This season the senior, finally entrenched as the starter at Alabama, has thrown for 2,775 yards and 19 touchdowns with eight interceptions heading into Monday’s national title game.
Jake Coker runs against North Carolina State during his days at Florida State. With the Seminoles, Coker only got to attempt 41 passes, completing 21, over two seasons as a backup. This season the senior, finally entrenched as the starter at Alabama, has thrown for 2,775 yards and 19 touchdowns with eight interceptions heading into Monday’s national title game.
Published Jan. 10, 2016

PHOENIX

As Florida State prepared to play Auburn for the 2013 national championship, it was obvious the Seminoles had one star quarterback.

Jameis Winston was the newly minted Heisman Trophy winner, a future No. 1 overall NFL draft pick taking the Seminoles to an undefeated season.

Only FSU's coaches and players thought they had another standout, too — an unheralded, three-star recruit with 41 career passes.

Jake Coker nearly made Florida State's staff keep one of the best players in school history on the bench.

"People look back on it, and they don't believe us," Seminoles quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders said then. "But if we had chosen Coker, who's to say we wouldn't be sitting here?"

Two years later, Coker was sitting at another table at another media day before another national championship game.

Only his role and the shade of red on his jersey were completely different.

After four years as a backup — first at FSU, then at Alabama — Coker is the undisputed starter and captain for the No. 2 Crimson Tide. With a victory on Monday night over No. 1 Clemson, Coker can claim a second national title in three seasons and finally prove that Winston wasn't the only star quarterback on FSU's championship team.

"Five years ago I never would have thought I'd be in the position I am now," Coker said during Saturday's media day at the Phoenix Convention Center.

"Looking at it now, there's no place I'd rather end up."

•••

After redshirting in 2011 and playing little the next fall, Coker entered the 2013 season with realistic hopes of replacing EJ Manuel as the Seminoles' starter.

FSU's top returner, Clint Trickett, transferred to West Virginia after the spring, narrowing the battle to two. Winston, a redshirt freshman, was a five-star talent and the presumptive favorite, but Coker was a fierce competitor with a 6-foot-5 frame.

"He's the best thrower I've ever been around, at any level," Trickett said.

The spring battle carried over into the fall.

The 'Noles kept delaying an announcement. Coach Jimbo Fisher said the call was "one of the toughest decisions I've had to go through." The view among his staff was not unanimous.

"You couldn't really tell who won," said Christian Green, a receiver on that team.

Ten days before the opener, FSU finally named Winston the starter. He completed the first 11 passes of his collegiate career in a prime-time win over Pitt and became a superstar.

Coker stayed on the bench but didn't need much time to overcome his disappointment.

"The way that season went, the way at Florida State we won it all?" Coker said. "It didn't take long."

The Mobile, Ala., native graduated early and transferred to 'Bama before the 2014 season. The external, and perhaps unrealistic, expectation was he would inherit the starting spot left by the NFL-bound AJ McCarron.

He didn't. Coker lost the job to Blake Sims. But Coker started to impress his new teammates with the way he celebrated every big play Sims made.

"At that moment," Alabama center Ryan Kelly said, "a lot of guys knew we had a really special team player."

•••

When Sims left after last year's College Football Playoff semifinal loss, Coker entered his senior season with one final, three-player quarterback competition.

"Man, I've got to make sure I get this done," Coker thought. "This is my last shot."

Unfortunately, Coker played that way.

Even after he earned his first career start in the opener against Wisconsin, Coker worried that he would lose the job he spent four years fighting to win. To avoid making mistakes, he overthought every decision — causing him to make mistakes.

Alabama benched him in place of Cooper Bateman against No. 15 Ole Miss. When the Crimson Tide fell behind 17-3, Coker entered the game with nothing to lose.

"It was like … 'I'm done with this,' " Coker said. "I was making sure that I just played as hard as I could, no matter what happened, and I busted my butt trying to do it."

And, finally, it worked. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit saw Coker throwing decisively and scrambling with a purpose, as if he was channeling 57 games' worth of frustration into three quarters.

Coker didn't lead a comeback victory; the Tide lost 43-37. But he showed enough to earn the job for good. Alabama hasn't lost since.

"Jacob certainly has won our team over," coach Nick Saban said.

And his play has started to win over remaining doubters.

Coker has completed at least 60 percent in his past 10 starts and has 14 touchdowns and five interceptions during an 11-game winning streak. In the College Football Playoff semifinal against Michigan State, he hit 18 of his final 20 throws in a 38-0 rout at the Cotton Bowl. His teammates voted him a captain.

"I'm so proud of him," said Winston, the Bucs' rookie quarterback. "I'm proud of the way he persevered."

Coker credits that perseverance to his time in Tallahassee.

Battling a future Heisman winner taught him how to keep competing. His experience on FSU's title team showed him how to run a championship locker room and helped get the Tide to where it is now — four quarters from a fourth national title in seven years.

"It was a long, long journey here," Coker said. "Just keep working, keep putting in the time. You're going to get something. It might not be exactly what you thought you'd get."

But it will be worth the wait.

Times staff writer Greg Auman contributed to this report. Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.