- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- He said and did all the right things. Losing a competition is never easy, but Jacob Coker handled it with a certain hard-working grace: put your nose to the grindstone, turn the page, bottle up the disappointment and use it as fuel later.
He went to Florida State to become the starting quarterback, and after three years, he saw the opportunity pass him by.
It was a close race last season, coaches and teammates insist, but as the rest of college football found out, holding Jameis Winston down is next to impossible. His season will go down in history; Coker's will be easily forgotten. He was just the guy slapping the Heisman Trophy winner's hand as he came off the field.
But an amazing thing happened during the latter part of Florida State's run toward the national championship. Coker, the forgotten loser of a long-forgotten quarterback competition, began grabbing the country's attention. A redshirt sophomore on the verge of graduating, he became one of the most sought-after transfers in college football.
The dots were quickly connected. Coker was from South Alabama, grew up rooting for Alabama and backed up Alabama starting quarterback AJ McCarron in high school. It wasn't long before he visited Alabama's campus, met with Nick Saban and gave his verbal commitment to the Crimson Tide.
Alabama signed the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the country on Wednesday, hauling in one-third of the available five-star prospects and a school-record 19 ESPN 300 recruits. But no member of the 27-man signing class is more important than Coker, who has the hopes of an entire fan base pinned on him winning the quarterback competition in the fall and returning the program back to the national championship game next winter. All that on the shoulders of a former three-star recruit who hasn't started a college game or thrown a meaningful pass since he was a senior in high school.
"It's been tough not playing for the last three years," Coker said earlier this month. "It's been really tough for me because I'm not used to that, and it's been eating at me."
Does he have a chip on the shoulder? Something to prove?
"I guess you could say that," he said. "I can't wait to start working again and get into the playbook and doing all the things I need to do to get out there. I'm just ready to go."
Coker was reticent to leave Florida State at first. When the news broke that he had committed to Alabama, he was worried how his teammates in Tallahassee would react. Winston was one of the first to send him a congratulatory text message. Coker returned to campus and the rest of the team embraced him. They knew the deal, he said. They understood that this is what he had to do -- "an obvious decision," as he put it.
He is still a student at Florida State. For the next few months, it's all about finishing his degree and getting ready for what's ahead at Alabama.
"School is the first thing because if I don't get that done I won't be able to play," he said. "But when I'm not doing that, I'm working out, throwing the football, running. I'm trying to get in better shape -- stronger, faster than I've ever been for when fall comes around."
When he does make it to Tuscaloosa, a new world will be awaiting him, one wrought with expectations, pressure and, yes, competition. Even though he won't speculate on how the quarterback race will play out, those closest to him feel good about his chances.
Jimmy Perry arrived at St. Paul's High School just in time to see the school's most successful quarterback graduate. Perry, who was a football administrator at Auburn University, took the job at the private school in Mobile, Ala., the year McCarron left for Alabama. Out of McCarron's shadow emerged Coker, a raw, lanky athlete who had a more refined jump shot than a three-step drop.
Perry had no size on the offensive line, so he ran the wing-T offense Coker's junior year, letting the 6-foot-5, floppy-haired kid move the ball with his feet. It was what was best for St. Paul's at the time, but it kept the interest of colleges at bay and might have hindered Coker's development as a passer had it not been for his work ethic.
"He was the first one on the field and the last one off it every day," Perry said. "In the offseason, in the winter time when it's too cold to do anything, he was always out there throwing."
Coker hired a quarterback coach that summer, St. Paul's transitioned to a more traditional dropback offense, and Coker became what Perry calls a "prototypical pro-style passer." His foot work got better, his arm became stronger, and his accuracy improved. The intangibles Perry saw as a junior, paired with the arm talent he grew into as a senior, made him unstoppable. He wound up throwing for 1,508 yards and 16 touchdowns and rushing for another 355 yards and five scores that season. Florida State offered him a scholarship, and he quickly accepted.
He could flick his wrist and send the ball a mile, but it was his speed and quickness that made him special. Perry fondly recalled him running a "quarterback keep" 52 yards for a touchdown against perennial powerhouse Spanish Fort, handing the program its first home loss in three years.
"He's good at anything he does," Perry said. "I don't think people realize he was the Class 5A Player of the Year in the city of Mobile in basketball. That tells you how athletic he is. To be the player of the year in a town like Mobile? And he plays football? Shoot, he's an athlete."
Alabama came on late in Coker's recruitment. Then-assistant coach Jeremy Pruitt did everything he could in the final few weeks to sway him from his commitment to Florida State, but the effort proved futile.
The scholarship offer did entice him, however. David Morris, Coker's longtime throwing coach, said it "shook him up a bit."
"It was an anxious time for him," Morris said. "He was considering Alabama. He grew up a big Alabama fan but felt obligated and felt like he should do what he said he would do. And there was a lot of intrigue with Florida State and he saw an opportunity after EJ Manuel."
Dameyune Craig, Florida State's lead recruiter at the time, sold Coker on being the next Manuel. According to Perry, Craig told Coker that he saw him developing into a first-round NFL draft pick with the Seminoles. Craig couldn't have known that the quarterback he would recruit the following year had a date with destiny all to himself.
"Florida State is sitting there with two first-round draft picks," Perry said. "Jacob had to go somewhere else."
"It's great for both parties," Perry said. "Alabama's got themselves a jewel."
Kenny Shaw thought the race was too close to call. The senior Florida State receiver caught passes from Winston and Coker last summer, and if he were coach Jimbo Fisher, he said he wouldn't have been able to pick one over the other.
Lamarcus Joyner, an All-American defensive back with the Noles, thought the same thing, comparing it to the time Florida had Tim Tebow as the starter and Cam Newton backing him up. Competing against Coker, Joyner saw and felt something special.
"I'll never forget one day he threw an interception to me, and that kid came and hit me harder than I've ever been hit in my life," Joyner told reporters prior to the BCS National Championship. "Yes, it felt like a linebacker; big kid, can make all the throws, very intelligent, and he's going to have a future himself, just as Jameis."
Without Winston, there is no Coker. If Coker had lost the job to a serviceable quarterback and not the eventual Heisman Trophy winner, he wouldn't be looked at the same way. "Former three-star recruit" would be the first line in his story instead of the tale that has made him sound like a modern-day Paul Bunyan.
"I think the guy's a big-time player," Fisher said. "He's going to be a great quarterback."
Morris, for his part, sees the skill Coker needs to live up to the hype.
"He's a real natural athlete," he said while also recognizing some important facts. "He's inexperienced and doesn't have a lot of starts right now; he doesn't have any starts. So he has to gain that experience, and that's one of those things you can't exactly duplicate.
"He's got to learn the position, but physically he's the guy that's going to look the part and make all the throws and make them pretty effortlessly. So now it's a matter of proving that all on the field."
As far as comparing Coker to McCarron, Morris won't do it. He is working with both quarterbacks in Mobile and said it wouldn't be fair to fit Coker for McCarron's shoes at this point in his career -- never mind that anyone cheering for Alabama has already done that a million times over by now.
"The thing they have in common is they're both very competitive," Morris said. "They're both leaders, but they lead differently. They're both guys that work hard.
"Jake is one of those guys that you get really excited about because of his skill set, because of his work ethic, because of his leadership and humility and all the intangibles that matter so much. But ultimately he has to win the position."
That small matter has been largely forgotten in the afterglow of signing day. Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod and David Cornwell -- "the forgotten" among Alabama quarterbacks -- will have their say in the competition. But there's no use denying that Coker is considered the front-runner. When Saban was asked about the nature of the quarterback competition, he called the race "wide open."
"And it's going to stay wide open until we start the fall because we want to give everyone an equal opportunity to have a chance to win the job," Saban told ESPN's Tom Rinaldi.
The only quarterback on hold until the fall? Coker.
"Over the last two to three years, I probably might have been nervous," Coker said of the expectations awaiting him at Alabama. "But over the last year, I've figured out to go out there and concentrate on myself and how I can get better. Whatever happens, happens."
His goal, he said, is to leave everything he has on the field. He can't change what people expect of him, but he can live up to his own expectations.
"I'm just going to let go of the ball and be confident in what I'm doing," he said.
If you're looking for Coker to succumb to the pressure, don't bet on it. He's not a rookie. He's been through quarterback battles before. He's not coming to Tuscaloosa looking to reinvent the wheel.
It's that no-nonsense approach that will serve him best.
"I don't feel like I need anyone to prepare me for it," he said. "I'm just going to be myself. I'm not going to change. I'm going to be the same old guy that I've always been. I'll just be playing in a different uniform."