We heard the stories about his bazooka arm, how he pushed eventual Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston in the Florida State quarterback race a year ago and how his old coach, Jimbo Fisher, said he would be the most talented quarterback Nick Saban has coached at Alabama.
Who’s to say Coker won’t live up to that billing?
It’s also a reminder that Saban is as bottom-line as it gets. He’s not going to reward a player for potential. He’s going to play whoever gives the team the best chance to win right now.
By all accounts, Sims has outplayed Coker.
That doesn’t mean he has locked down the job. Reports indicate Sims is expected to start against West Virginia in the opener Saturday, but both will get snaps.
Saban’s not nearly as concerned about settling on who his starting quarterback will be for this first game as he is on settling on who it will be for the season. Sometimes, the “process” takes a few games.
Moreover, Coker has been on campus for fewer than four months, since his transfer from Florida State. Sims has been there for more than four years -- sweating, working and sacrificing with his teammates.
The last thing Saban’s going to do is hand the job over to somebody who hasn’t won it, especially when that somebody is new to the program.
The added layer of drama in the quarterback situation this season is that Lane Kiffin is debuting as the Tide's offensive coordinator, their third in four seasons.
However it shakes out, the Crimson Tide would like to add more of a big-play element to their passing game. They ranked 45th nationally a year ago in completions of 20 yards or more (45). A healthy Amari Cooper at receiver should help pad those numbers.
Ultimately, Alabama doesn’t have to figure it out until a stretch against Florida at home on Sept. 20 and Ole Miss on the road two weeks later.
We’re now in the playoff era in college football, so it’s probably fitting that Alabama will have its own little playoff at the quarterback position during these next few weeks.
I’m old enough to remember Herschel Walker’s college football debut and can still see him running over Bill Bates at the goal line in Neyland Stadium. That was 34 years ago.
There was only one Herschel, for sure. But it’s been a while since I’ve been as eager to see a freshman play in this league as I am to see LSU running back Leonard Fournette. He’s built a lot like Walker (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) and has the kind of speed and power the great ones possess.
Rest assured, NFL scouts will be watching, and not just because Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon will be on the other side Saturday night. This summer, I had a longtime NFL coach tell me he’d never seen high school tape of a running back as impressive as Fournette’s.
"I'm not so sure that he's not ready [for the NFL] right now," the coach said. "If he stays healthy, he's everything you're looking for wrapped into one."
Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson feels better about his defense than he did at any point a year ago. The Tigers should be much more physical in the defensive line and plan to play Montravius Adams a good bit at end. “He’s 315 pounds and can flat run,” Johnson said. Johnson said Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost make up the best starting linebacker combo he has ever coached. The big concern is at the hybrid “star” position. There’s no timetable for when the Tigers will get Robenson Therezie back because of an eligibility issue, which means Justin Garrett has to stay healthy. Last season, that was a struggle for Garrett, who has had a terrific preseason camp.
Tennessee’s Curt Maggitt plans to move between end and outside linebacker, as the Vols need him to be a disruptive presence. The concern with Maggitt is whether he can stay healthy. He missed all of last season with a knee injury and has battled a high-ankle sprain in camp. The Vols’ most consistent pass-rusher this preseason has been true freshman Derek Barnett, who will play a key role Sunday night in getting after Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton.
One of the best matchups of the opening weekend will be Georgia’s running game against a Clemson defensive line that’s as deep, talented and experienced as any in the country. Todd Gurley won’t have to go it alone. The word out of the Dawgs’ camp is that Keith Marshall looks as good as new after suffering that nasty knee injury last season. Interestingly enough, they also want to play both true freshmen, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. They are that good, although dividing carries among four running backs gets tricky.
Why does Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen think this is his best team? For one, this is the most depth he’s had, and he also has a quarterback in junior Dak Prescott who’s the best fit he’s had in Starkville for the offensive system he wants to run.
The plan is for Jake Coker to back up Sims and see some playing time, the website reported, citing a source.
The game will serve as a continuation of the audition to replace AJ McCarron under center.
Coach Nick Saban had said Monday that he wasn't ready to name a starter.
"We're going to continue to rep both guys," he said. "We feel like both guys have done a good job. Obviously someone has to start the game, so we'll make that decision sometime this week."
Saban also had said that whoever starts the opener might not finish it.
"Whatever pitcher starts the game isn't necessarily going to pitch nine innings," he said.
Although the race has been narrowed to Sims and Coker, it has been unclear who has the edge in the competition. Alabama's scrimmages haven't been open to the media, and passing statistics have not been provided by the university during preseason camp.
Sims, however, is said to be more comfortable in the offense than Coker. The fifth-year senior and longtime backup to McCarron also has a better relationship with his teammates, according to Saban.
Coker has been playing catch-up since transferring from Florida State this summer. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound former backup to Jameis Winston is more of a prototypical passer compared to Sims, who has been primarily a read-option quarterback. But Coker has needed time to adjust to a new playbook and new set of receivers at Alabama.
How will it all shake out? This is our first shot at it, so take it easy on us. Like most of you, we will know a lot more about every team in the conference by the time the weekend is through.
But if there is one thing I'm confident in, it's that an SEC team will compete in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Sorry if I'm not buying that two will make it. Maybe next season, when all these inexperienced quarterbacks are a year more mature, but not now.
- CFB Playoff (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Alabama
- Cotton Bowl, Jan. 1: South Carolina
- Orange Bowl, Dec. 31: LSU
- Birmingham Bowl, Jan. 3: Vanderbilt
- TaxSlayer Bowl, Jan. 2: Florida
- Outback Bowl, Jan. 1: Georgia
- Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1: Auburn
- Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Dec. 30: Missouri
- Belk Bowl, Dec. 30: Mississippi State
- AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl, Dec. 29: Texas A&M
- AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Dec. 29: Ole Miss
Numbers never lie
Let’s start with the most obvious statistic: the number two. Nick Marshall and Jameis Winston, the two quarterbacks in the BCS National Championship Game, were first-year starters last season. And Marshall, of course, was a defensive back a few years prior at Georgia and had the benefit of only three weeks on campus at Auburn before he won the starting job and took the field against Washington State.
Looking at last season alone, almost 20 similarly inexperienced quarterbacks were ranked in the top 50 nationally in QBR. Along with Winston and Marshall, you could find Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott and Baylor’s Bryce Petty.
Remember your history
There was a time, remember, when AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger weren’t the players we know them to be today. It wasn’t all that long ago that Johnny Football was a scruffy, too-short Johnny Manziel.
The departed class of quarterbacks had to start somewhere.
Mettenberger finally got his shot at LSU and led the Tigers to a 10-3 record.
McCarron took over and helped Alabama to a national championship.
Murray slid under center and slung the football for 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Do we need to recount Manziel’s freshman season? The Heisman Trophy says enough.
QBs aren’t young anymore
There’s a new truth about freshmen quarterbacks: By the time they’ve arrived at college, many of them aren’t the wide-eyed rookies we’ve come to expect.
The rise of spread offenses have asked more of high school quarterbacks. Summer 7-on-7 camps have refined their skills, too. And then there’s the trend toward personal quarterback coaches.
With so many tools at their disposal, quarterbacks have shortened the learning curve.
Ken Mastrole can relate. When he was a freshman at Maryland in the mid-1990s, he said he “had no one teaching me what I was doing wrong.” He had little knowledge of X’s and O’s. He didn’t go to camps and didn’t have a personal coach to mentor him.
Now Mastrole is doing that job himself, having worked with the likes of E.J. Manuel and Teddy Bridgewater. As soon as he gets a new client, whether he’s in college or entering high school, he said he immediately starts working on their footwork and drops, watching film and analyzing their throwing motion.
“Plus, the mental and vision training I incorporate speeds up their decision-making process,” he added. “I have QBs now more than ever that are competing to start as freshmen and sophomores, and it gives them three-plus years of experience which makes them even more ready for college."
He continued: “My former teammate is now a high school offensive coordinator and is running the Air Raid offense. I sit in his meetings and am blown away on how advanced he is. He has his guys mentally ready when they sign a letter of intent.”
Let the vet have his shot
Coaches, at the end of the day, will go with their gut. And more often than not that means going with what they know -- at least to begin with.
At Alabama, don’t be surprised if Blake Sims gets the starting nod against West Virginia. The fifth-year senior has earned his shot, while Jake Coker, who transferred from FSU this summer, is still getting his bearings.
At LSU, Anthony Jennings could be the first quarterback to trot on the field against Wisconsin. The sophomore saw the field nine times last year, starting in a win at the Outback Bowl, while Brandon Harris has yet to attempt a single pass in college.
But talent will always win out. If Sims can’t get the job done, Coker will step in. If Jennings struggles, Harris will take over. The two newbies may not be totally comfortable with their respective offenses yet, but you can teach that. You’d rather have the best guy learning on the fly than the best guy riding the bench.
You would rather be sitting here today with a proven guy, but also you know that there's going to be good players that emerge," said Freeze. "I'm glad we're one that has [a veteran QB], but I fully expect that there will be two or three no one's talking about right now that come out and play and perform really well."
How the season would play out, he said, was up to them.
"The challenge is to sort of resurrect our identity, in terms of what we want Alabama football to be," he said.
Only in Tuscaloosa would a 10-2 record and a berth in the Sugar Bowl be considered an abject failure. Only a coach like Saban would insist that resuscitation and rebirth was required.
"With a program like Alabama if you don't win national championships people think that's a failure," said safety Nick Perry.
But resurrection? Isn't that a little over the top?
At the very least, it's ambiguous. How exactly does one resurrect themselves? It's not as defined as becoming a better zone-blocking team or mastering the two-minute offense.
"I think he just means that we need to be one," said offensive tackle Austin Shepherd. "We don't need to be little pods of people in groups. When he talks about it to us, he just says that we need to be a group, get out there, play together, and then once you're off the field you guys need to hang out because that means you guys are going to click better on the field."
Jonathan Allen, a promising young defensive end, agreed. He said the team wasn't as connected as it should have been. The chemistry wasn't there.
"We lost it toward the end of last year," he said.
"We want to be a team," Saban said, "and we want the identity of our team to include 'we,' which means all players are together, take care of each other and take responsibility."
That's fine and all, but how will that ultimately be measured? How will we know if Alabama dusted off the ashes and began anew?
The problem is we won't know for quite some time. In fact, it might not be clear until the games are over and the history of the season is written.
After all, who outside the program noticed trouble brewing before the Iron Bowl debacle? Anyone claiming to have heard forlorn whispers when Alabama was still No. 1 might be stretching the truth. Even after the loss at Auburn, many expected the Tide to pick back up and wipe the floor with Oklahoma.
Complacency? Please. That wasn't an issue, we were told time and time again. That is, until back-to-back losses put Alabama on its back. Then the explanations came in waves, most notably from AJ McCarron, who said how "success was our killer” and that there was a sense of entitlement that permeated the locker room.
To keep those demons away, Saban wants a fresh start. He wants the focus on togetherness and chemistry and all the intangible things we're told make a champion.
But the truth is winning cures all. Winning makes for good teammates and happy coaches. Winning means not having to say you're sorry.
It's why Blake Sims and Jake Coker are currently entangled in a quarterback battle. Coker has the arm. Sims has the locker room. And, in the end, it's not who has the most friends in the huddle, it's who can throw the ball down the field best.
If you want to know the identity Alabama is trying to resurrect, all you have to do is look up as you enter the Mal Moore Athletic Facility from the players' parking lot. There, in full view on the second floor, are three crystal footballs. Once inside, you'll see the number 15 everywhere. That number -- Alabama's total number of national championships -- is the only thing that matters.
If Alabama wants No. 16, it will take a quarterback coming into his own, a freshman left tackle learning in a hurry, and a defense returning to form.
Call it resurrection if you want. How it's done -- whether it be with a festive locker room or a business-like sense of purpose -- is only window dressing.
Cam Robinson, Alabama: It might not be the toughest position to learn on the offensive line, but there’s an argument to be made that left tackle is the most critical. And considering Alabama is breaking in a new quarterback, it’s even more important to protect his blind side. Which makes it all the more impressive that Robinson, a former five-star prospect, came into spring camp as a true freshman and won the starting job for the final spring scrimmage. He has size, he has agility and, apparently, he has the consistency few rookies possess. Even in today’s day and age of young guys playing earlier and earlier, the fact that he’s gone all the way through fall camp without any setbacks or doubt about his starting from Week 1 is flat-out impressive. -- Alex Scarborough
Roc Thomas, Auburn: The hype all offseason has been on Fournette at LSU, but he’s not the only talented freshman running back in the SEC. If given the opportunity, Thomas has a chance to be just as productive his first year. The question is whether or not there will be enough carries to go around. Despite losing Tre Mason to the NFL, Auburn has four capable running backs who should all contribute this year. Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant will get the first crack because of experience, but Thomas is too good to keep off the field. Don’t be surprised if he’s the guy by mid-October. -- Greg Ostendorf
Myles Garrett, Texas A&M: After signing him in February, Kevin Sumlin jokingly referred to Garrett as "Batman" in reference to the sculpted body that the 6-foot-5, 255-pound five-star prospect boasts. Since arriving on campus this summer, Garrett has earned the respect of his teammates and performed well on the practice field. "Myles is about what we thought when we recruited him," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said last week. For a player ranked No. 4 overall in the 2014 class, that means look out. Garrett will play early and often and should provide a boost to the Aggies' pass rush immediately, something sorely needed after a down year for the Aggie defense in 2013. -- Sam Khan
Tony Brown, Alabama: The Texas native and two-sport athlete wasn’t going to let some silly shoulder injury slow him down, even if that meant wearing a protective brace. The former five-star prospect got to school early and made an interception during the final spring scrimmage, albeit with one good shoulder and a black no-contact jersey on. Now closer to 100 percent, he hasn’t given an inch, appearing second on the depth chart at cornerback. He’ll see the field plenty as is, but if Bradley Sylve or Cyrus Jones falters, we could see Brown in the starting lineup making plays. -- Alex Scarborough
D’haquille Williams, Auburn: If you think Sammie Coates is good, Williams is on another level. The 6-foot-2, 216-pound wide receiver has yet to play a down in the SEC, but he could be one of the league’s top wide receivers by the end of the year. Some are even saying that this could be his one and only season at Auburn. Williams arrived from junior college in January and has blown away the coaching staff both in the spring and more recently in fall camp. His position coach, Dameyune Craig, went as far as to say he could have an impact similar to the one Jameis Winston had on Florida State last year. With Coates and Williams on the outside, it’s easy to see why Auburn expects to be more balanced on offense. – Greg Ostendorf
Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M: He's big (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) and fast and gifted. Seals-Jones looked poised for a strong freshman season until a knee injury sidelined him for the final nine games of 2013. Now with three of the Aggies' top four pass-catchers from last season gone, there are receptions for the taking and expect Seals-Jones to get his hands on several. The former ESPN 300 recruit will work primarily as an inside receiver but also have a role as a hybrid tight end/H-back type in order to find the best matchups possible. Good luck to all the safeties and linebackers looking to cover this thoroughbred over the middle. – Sam Khan
De'Runnya Wilson, Mississippi State: If you’re looking for a physical freak, look no further than No. 81 for the Bulldogs. At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, he’s far bigger than any defensive backs he’ll come up against in the SEC. And chances are he can out jump them, too. Otherwise he wouldn’t be helping out Mississippi State on the hardwood when football isn’t in session. The former three-star prospect is raw, granted, but he’s brimming with potential. Once the sophomore gets a good grasp on the playbook and understands the nuances of the position, watch out. With the fleet-footed, shifty Jameon Lewis drawing defenses to the middle of the field, Wilson has the potential to be a serious vertical threat. – Alex Scarborough
O.J. Howard, Alabama: Don’t let last year’s numbers fool you. Fourteen receptions for 269 yards and two touchdowns isn’t overwhelming. But his inconsistency -- in five games he had zero receptions -- can be traced back to his inexperience and the play-calling. Now that he’s a year wiser and more mature, he could develop into an every-down tight end who can physically handle the trenches of the SEC. And with Lane Kiffin now directing the offense, his role is poised to expand. At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds with the mobility of a much smaller receiver, he’s a matchup nightmare. – Alex Scarborough
Shane Ray, Missouri: The last time we saw Ray, he was scooping up a fumble and racing 73 yards the other way for the game-winning touchdown against Oklahoma State in the bowl game. Most defensive ends might have been caught from behind, but not Ray. There was no doubt when he picked it up. Despite playing a reserve role last year, Ray finished with 39 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hurries. Now it’s his turn. Nobody’s in front of him, and the junior pass-rusher has a chance to put up similar numbers to Sam, the reigning SEC defensive player of the year. – Greg Ostendorf
Football season is finally here. When South Carolina and Texas A&M kick it off tonight (6 ET, SEC Network), the SEC will be back in full swing.
With that in mind, it's time to make some game picks. Each week during the season, our SEC reporters will pick each game on the slate, and we'll highlight the biggest battles and the ones that generated the most disagreement.
Why South Carolina will win: The Gamecocks have a lot of firepower and experience coming back on offense, while the Aggies still have a lot of questions on defense. Texas A&M should put some points up with its own potent group of playmakers, but South Carolina's defense will force QB Kenny Hill into some late mistakes. Feeding RB Mike Davis the ball in the fourth should help put this one away. -- Edward Aschoff
Why Alabama will win: Despite the attention on Alabama's quarterbacks, nearly the only thing that makes this one interesting is how the Crimson Tide's retooled pass rush and secondary will fare against QB Clint Trickett and the West Virginia offense. Whether it's Jake Coker or Blake Sims under center for Alabama, expect him to hand it off plenty and for the Tide to have their way against a Mountaineers defense that finished 101st nationally in total defense last season by allowing 455 yards per game. -- David Ching
Why Georgia will win: Hey, the Bulldogs might make fans nervous with their defense, especially with that incredibly unproven secondary, but the offense shouldn't miss much of a beat with QB Hutson Mason taking over. Clemson's defense has improved, but there are just too many good working parts on Georgia's offense. I have a feeling that some pounding from RB Todd Gurley and a major play from LB Leonard Floyd will get the job done for Georgia on Saturday.
-- Edward Aschoff
Why LSU will win: The Tigers are 9-0 in season openers under coach Les Miles, including four games against ranked opponents and six away from Tiger Stadium. Wisconsin is good in season openers, too (16 straight to LSU's 11), but Houston's proximity to Louisiana and the large number of Tigers fans expected at NRG Stadium should give LSU a slight boost. These teams are similar, but LSU's experienced offensive line against Wisconsin's inexperienced defensive front gives the Tigers a slight edge. -- Sam Khan Jr.
Why Wisconsin will win: If this game were in November, LSU would be in better position. But given that the Tigers lost every key piece on offense (QB, RB, both WRs), it may be too much to ask them to go on the road this early against a top-25 team. Wisconsin may not have experience at QB, but it has one of the best tailbacks in the country in Melvin Gordon and an offensive line that could be special with four returning starters. -- Alex Scarborough
Why Tennessee will win: Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton can't beat the Vols by himself, can he? Even with UT linebackers A.J. Johnson spying and Curt Maggitt providing some pass rush, Keeton won't be stopped, but he will be contained. Coach Butch Jones says the Volunteers will play as many as 30 freshmen in this one, so there are sure to be mistakes. Tennessee has just enough talent to win a squeaker at home. -- Jeff Barlis
Why Utah State will win: This isn't your typical mid-major opponent. The Aggies won nine games last season despite not having Keeton for the second half of the season. Keeton is back, and this is the perfect game to jump-start his Heisman campaign. Tennessee is still a program on the rise, but with no returning starters up front and up to 30 freshmen expected to play, there are just too many question marks. -- Greg Ostendorf
More consensus picks: Ole Miss over Boise State, Vanderbilt over Temple, Florida over Idaho, Auburn over Arkansas, Kentucky over UT Martin, Missouri over South Dakota State, Mississippi State over Southern Miss.
2. Next up on the SEC schedule is No. 18 Ole Miss hosting Boise State. Need to get up to speed on the Rebels? Here's an in-depth discussion of the offense and the defense. Interestingly, both head coaches in this game, Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze and Boise State's Bryan Harsin, got their FBS head coaching starts at Arkansas State. Both speak fondly of their time there but acknowledged the difficulty of leaving so soon. The Rebels are one of the handful of SEC programs returning a starting quarterback and there's hope that a big year is ahead for Bo Wallace. The senior himself said he feels a lot more confident than he did at this point a year ago.
3. Finally, tonight's SEC slate concludes with Vanderbilt hosting Temple. New Commodores head coach Derek Mason makes his head coaching debut tonight, doesn't plan to be out in the forefront. Unlike his charismatic predecessor, James Franklin, Mason would rather blend in tonight. Linebacker Kyle Woestmann said "It's definitely centered a lot more around us. It's always player-first. Coming out of the tunnel, he wants it to be us first. Whatever we do, he wants it to be us first." It's also the time for quarterback Patton Robinette to take the wheel. He was named the starter in camp and though Mason acknowledged on Wednesday that it was a close race, he doesn't want Robinette looking over his shoulder and is confident in his signal-caller.
More from around the SEC:
- Alabama linebacker Trey DePriest will miss the Crimson Tide's season opener because of a "minor NCAA infraction."
- Auburn coach Gus Malzahn is encouraged by his team's intensity and focus heading into the season opener vs. Arkansas.
- There's a difference in Florida's offensive line this season. "They're nastier."
- Missouri freshman defensive end Walter Brady was ruled eligible by the NCAA clearinghouse Wednesday after an extended wait.
- Les Miles reiterated that both Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris will play for LSU on Saturday versus Wisconsin.
- Tennessee coach Butch Jones said upwards of 28 freshmen could play in the Volunteers' opener.
Blake Sims to start for Alabama
Final 21 Texas A&M 52 9 South Carolina 28 Final Boise State 13 18 Ole Miss 35 Final Temple 37 Vanderbilt 7
12:00 PM ET Tennessee-Martin Kentucky 3:30 PM ET South Dakota State 24 Missouri 3:30 PM ET West Virginia 2 Alabama 4:00 PM ET Arkansas 6 Auburn 5:30 PM ET 16 Clemson 12 Georgia 7:00 PM ET Idaho Florida 7:30 PM ET Southern Miss Mississippi State 9:00 PM ET 14 Wisconsin 13 LSU