Jacob Coker working way to Alabama
MOBILE, Ala. -- Idle is not a position Jacob Coker prefers. Yet here he is, amid the constant swish of windshield wipers, sitting impatiently in the passenger seat of a silver sedan as a thunderstorm continues to pummel this swampy patch of the Gulf Coast.
It's a Friday morning in late March, and while many of Alabama's football players are laid out on sunlit beaches enjoying spring break, Coker has his mind set to working in his own slushy backyard.
The 21-year-old put aside a jam-packed final semester at Florida State to drive 250 miles home to Mobile, sit in a car and watch as rain threatened to wash away his scheduled throwing session with David Morris, his quarterback coach of more than five years.
A week earlier, Coker spent his spring vacation in Tuscaloosa watching film and working out. He missed walking in on AJ McCarron's pro day by minutes, leaving Alabama's indoor facility just as the Crimson Tide's former star quarterback began throwing for scouts.
Coker is the favorite to inherit McCarron's throne when he finishes his undergraduate degree and transfers to Alabama next month, but not before days like this -- days where you either push through less-than-ideal conditions or waste away at home. For his future teammates, if there's the slightest hint of precipitation, they move practice indoors to an air-conditioned, 97,000-square-foot facility. Meanwhile, Coker is left to create his own version of camp at empty high school stadiums and busy city parks. Wherever there's room and whenever there's time, he's training.
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His garnet-and-gold feet still scream Florida State, but from the ankles up he's all Alabama. His camouflage hat is a familiar sight in this state. A crimson Alabama shirt hangs loosely on his shoulders.
More and more, armchair scouts are comparing large, mobile quarterbacks to Ben Roethlisberger. In Coker, however, the comparison has some merit. The redshirt junior is just as solidly built as the two-time Super Bowl champ. He's 6-foot-5 and says he's 235 pounds, but he could easily pass for 250-plus.
As he stretches and darts over Morris' hurdles, you see his athleticism, the quickness that made him an All-Metro basketball player at St. Paul's high school. He still has the feet of a forward in the lane: efficient and bouncy. The rain soaks through his shirt and you're struck by his strength -- he has that certain old-school brawn with a barrel chest and round shoulders.
He flicks his wrist, delivering a perfect spiral to David Kelly, a shifty receiver from nearby South Alabama. The ball cuts through the wind and rain like a sail, crashing into Kelly's hands as a crack of thunder echoes in the distance.
"He's not pretty good," Kelly says. "He's good. You can tell the difference."
The difference, Alabama hopes, will bridge the gap from McCarron and provide another national championship.
The difference, Coker hopes, is far less ostentatious: let it be enough to win him the job in the first place. He'll take it from there.
Morris sits behind a cluttered desk at the offices of QB Country, framed by the names and faces of players he's worked with in the past: AJ McCarron, Tim Tebow, Matt Barkley. To his right hangs an oversized poster signed by New York Giant Eli Manning, which, in a roundabout way, brings Morris to the most important lesson he can teach Coker: confidence.
He'll cue up practice tape and decipher mechanics later, but what Morris has always been most concerned with is Coker's mindset. Directly behind a flat-screen TV is a picture of Coker on signing day, smiling with a Seminoles cap pulled tightly over his head. That moment was full of promise, the hope that he'd soon become Florida State's next starting quarterback. Three years went by and that day never came.
Morris understands better than most the unforgiving grind of a backup quarterback. He stood behind Manning for years at Ole Miss, watching firsthand as he blossomed into a star.
Morris, who started one game and attempted only 13 passes at Ole Miss, says it's a real test of confidence to play second string. He questioned himself often as he carried a clipboard behind Manning. He hopes Coker didn't do the same as he watched Jameis Winston win the starting job, hoist the Heisman Trophy, then carry Florida State to a national championship.
Coker's year in the shadows made him arguably the most intriguing and most coveted transfer in college football, but it could have ruined him. Lock away something long enough and it's only a matter of time before you forget it's there. Doubt creeps in: Can I really do this?
"You think you're this good, but you're not playing," Morris says, "So you're like, Am I? You still believe, but your faith takes a hit."
It's easy to see why Morris might be worried about Coker. He's the epitome of laid back. There's no obvious chip on his shoulder, no real air about him. Where McCarron would light into you, you wonder if Coker could light a match.
Has the fire gone out?
It's there, Morris says, you just have to look closely to see it. There's a perfectionist under his just-rolled-out-of-bed hair and even-tempered demeanor, someone who obsesses over things like the perfect spiral. Morris reminds him time and time again that it doesn't matter, that the ball was delivered on target and on stride. But it sometimes falls on deaf ears. There's a drive inside Coker to get everything right.
"He's more hungry now than he's ever been," Morris says.
Coker may not say it with great volume, but he says it nonetheless. Did losing the job to Winston hurt? Of course.
"Yeah ... I mean, hell yeah," he says. "It wasn't a good feeling at all. I was there for three years, but I'd been working toward a goal like that ever since I started playing football."
His team won the national championship, but it didn't feel like it was his. He played only a handful of games, injuring his knee in Week 9 against Wake Forest before spending the rest of the season on crutches. He wanted to make a difference, but ultimately he couldn't do more than cheer from the sideline.
Put simply: He isn't transferring to Alabama to be a backup. He's always wanted to be The Guy. All he's needed was an opportunity. Everyone at Florida State knew he was special. Seminoles quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders said he was "probably the best I've seen in 25 years at throwing it." But Sanders and the staff couldn't ignore Famous Jameis. He had the nickname and the pedigree. Coker made the race close, but they sided with potential.
"Let's be honest," Coker says, "You don't go to school to sit on the bench and high-five everybody. I'm more than appreciative of the whole situation [at FSU]. But heck, if I wanted to do that again, if I wanted to sit the bench, I would have stayed there.
"I'm leaving for a reason."
Bryant Coker stands beneath an awning as his son, Jacob, fires pass after pass to his receivers: rollouts, bootlegs, play-action. He has plenty of zip on the intermediate throws. He's working on getting touch on the screens and fade routes.
"His motion looks great right now," Morris says later that day. "It's short. It's quick. But you can always get a little more compact."
Neither Bryant nor Morris seems worried about Coker's knee. Even on slippery turf, he doesn't wear a brace. Moving around fine, he rolls out, cuts back, hits his drops confidently. Nearly every pass comes in chest-high -- a perfect strike with plenty of heat behind it.
Fifteen minutes into the workout, another jolt of thunder shakes the stadium. It's still far enough away to avoid danger, but Bryant raises an eyebrow. Ever the cautious father, he yells to get everyone off the field.
Coker raises his hand and waves him off without saying a word. His father shrugs while his son picks up another football, simulates another snap and lights another rocket into a receiver's chest.
His work ethic, Bryant says, is special. He was supposed to wait 20 weeks after surgery to begin practicing again, but Coker admits he "went a little early."
The clock, after all, is ticking. From the minute he decided to transfer to Alabama, he's been a step behind. Tide coach Nick Saban insists that the quarterback competition will wait for him, but opportunity doesn't work that way. Coker may get tired, but there are five other quarterbacks in Tuscaloosa he must contend with, even if he's not there to do so directly. They have full scrimmages inside Bryant-Denny Stadium. He's lucky if he can get an extra receiver to come work out.
Forget the enormous expectations awaiting him at Alabama, Coker is doing everything he can to handle the day-to-day.
"It's not easy, especially when you're juggling 19 hours of schoolwork," Coker says. "That's not fun at all. I know school is most important, but at the same time I have to get where I'm supposed to get. I'll wake up; go to class; rehab; work out; class; homework sometimes until 3-4 in the morning; wake up and have class in the morning and go all day again.
"It's pretty rough sometimes. There's not much sleep."
He'll squeeze in some time in the woods to hunt each month, but weekends mostly belong to Morris and the practice field. He'll go muddin' later, Coker says, but for now it's about embracing the grind.
Even in the wind and rain, he seems unaffected. More often than not, Morris and Kelly can't wrangle his throws. Between the conditions and the velocity of Coker's ball, they've lost feeling in their hands. After a slew of drops, Bryant lets out a laugh, rubbing a golf-ball-sized knot on the back of his right hand.
"It's from a game of catch three years ago," he says. "That's when I stopped trying to catch Jake's fastball."
With each pass and each subsequent drop, the thunder moves closer. Finally, Morris calls off practice and they join Bryant out from under the rain.
Morris and Kelly bend over at the knees, panting from exhaustion. Coker, meanwhile, is barely breathing above a resting rate. He wants more, but he knows the day is over. They'll try again tomorrow.
Morris is particularly drenched, his arms out and wrists limp as if to let the water simply fall off him. He turns over his hands, and you can see he took a beating. His palms are bright red from Coker's fastball. They'll be that way for a while.
There's simply no letting up in Coker -- not for his dad, not for anyone. There's too far to go to do it halfway. He says he'll attend Alabama's final scrimmage on Saturday. In the meantime, he's competing as if he's already there.
The truth is he can't wait. He plans to take final exams later this month, skip graduation and head straight to Tuscaloosa.
"I'm going to try and get out as fast as I can," he says.
His mind is already there. The only thing left is to get his feet on the ground and start running.
Alabama's other quarterbacks have their head start, but they can't possibly know all Coker has done. Even if everyone says it's a friendly competition, he's coming for their job. It's going to take more than the threat of lightning to keep him away. He's waited too long to stop now.