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Awaiting his chance

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Steve Mask was an assistant football coach in 2009 at St. Paul's Episcopal in Mobile, Ala., but for the annual faculty-vs.-students basketball game he was relegated to the role of referee.

The early part of the game belonged to the faculty, which led by a few points when Mask noticed his starting quarterback, Jacob Coker, flip a switch. Coker was the school's star athlete -- in football, basketball and baseball -- and he had no intention of being upstaged by his teachers.

On the next six trips down the court, Coker took every shot. All six connected, four of them dunks.

"It sounds trivial, but in that one spot, there was no question," Mask said. "This guy does not like to lose."

In the three years since, Coker's wide-ranging athleticism has been whittled down to just the football field, and even there he has been relegated for the most part to the role of spectator. In his two years at Florida State, Coker has thrown just five passes for 45 yards. But that could finally change this season, and while he's far from the most glamorous or most vocal member of Florida State's quarterback battle, he might be the most competitive.

"He's a quiet, soft-spoken young man," Jimbo Fisher said, "but that's a tough son of a gun."

Coker was a star on the basketball court in high school, earning Mobile's player of the year award as a junior. He was a key member of the St. Paul's baseball team until he decided to focus his energy on football. Looking for something to fill some time as a senior, he picked up a javelin for the first time in his life and ended up winning a state championship. Coker is a natural at all of it, but earning respect on the football field has been a bigger obstacle.

As a sophomore at St. Paul's, Coker was the backup quarterback. The starter was AJ McCarron, who struggled behind a lackluster supporting cast and won just a handful of games before moving on to Alabama, where he has led the Crimson Tide to the last two national championships.

When Coker took over, the offensive line was so bad coach Jimmy Perry was forced to install a Wing-T offense. It was his only hope of moving the football.

"If I'd put him in a pro-style offense, he'd have gotten butchered," Perry said.

Coker survived, but the system did little to showcase his talent. He received only minimal attention from the recruiting services, considered a mid-level prospect at best. But Fisher saw past the scant statistical achievements and drooled at the possibilities of a 6-foot-6, 240-pound behemoth with the agility of a basketball player and an arm that, while not exactly on par with Fisher's prized protégé, Jamarcus Russell, was about as close as anyone can get.

"I can coach 100 years and never coach a guy that strong, but [Coker] is very strong," Fisher said. "He's got a big-time arm."

Fisher offered Coker a scholarship after his junior season, a move Perry predicts will eventually make the FSU coach look like a genius.

But first, Coker needs to find his way onto the field.

As a senior at St. Paul's, Coker finally transitioned into a pro-style offense, winning 10 games along the way, but mastering the system at Florida State has been a longer process. He redshirted in 2011 and pushed Clint Trickett for the No. 2 job last year, but until this spring, he's rarely sniffed serious action.

"I'm not used to sitting on the bench, so it's something new -- and especially sitting there for two years straight," Coker said. "It was tough, but it's just made me hungrier."

Waiting in the wings behind EJ Manuel was one thing, but Coker never had the chance to be the next man in line. A year after he arrived at Florida State, he was followed by another quarterback from Alabama, the far more heralded Jameis Winston. Suddenly Coker was the man in the middle -- not an established veteran and not the next big thing.

"The big question was, when Florida State signed Winston, how would he react to that," Mask said. "Jake's response was, 'I'm going to do what I do, the best one's going to win, and that's going to be me.' "

Coker's progress has been impressive, considering how far he has had to come. His lanky frame has filled out, and his cannon arm has grown more accurate. Even the boyish haircut so popular among teens in his home state has been trimmed in favor or a more traditional style -- much to the chagrin of his fellow Alabaman.

"He's trying to go Florida on me by cutting his hair, and I don't know why he did that," Winston said.

Coker understands this is his chance to move beyond the labels that came from recruiting services and show how far up the learning curve he has climbed.

He has continued to work primarily with the No. 2 offense this spring, and he has been partially limited by a foot injury he suffered earlier in the year. But if he has been stymied by limited reps with the starters or the residual pain from the injury, he's making up for it by putting in more hours than anyone.

Long after practice ends on any given day, Coker is still on the field, tossing footballs back and forth with anyone who will concede to playing catch after hours of grueling workouts. It's nothing new for Coker.

In high school, he was always the first player to arrive at practice and the last to depart the field. When he returned to the locker room, he made a habit of cleaning up any trash or towels and folding up chairs in front of teammates' lockers before telling his coaches he was calling it a day.

"He was just so respected in there," Mask said. "He's one of the most humble kids I've been around."

All the extra work didn't pay immediate dividends for Coker, but he's finally seeing the fruits of his labor. The mental part of his game is starting to catch up with all those physical gifts, and he feels more comfortable with each passing day.

"Last year during the season was when it really started clicking and making sense," he said. "Just knowing what the routes are out of different formations, knowing the concepts that change based on where people are lined up."

And if it all clicks, if Coker gets the chance to tap into that well of talent and showcase that big arm and those agile feet, the possibilities seem endless.

Perry, who now coaches in Montgomery, Ala., said fans often ask whether he coached McCarron at St. Paul's. He always tells them he's glad he didn't, because McCarron's final team was so bad that the staff was fired. And the way Perry sees it, he got the better quarterback anyway. It's just that Coker hasn't yet had the forum to prove it.

"AJ may be a little more accurate just because he's thrown a lot more balls," Perry said.

The same might be true of Trickett or Winston now, but Coker's doing his best to even the playing field. He knows he's not guaranteed a job, but he relishes a challenge.

"I've got to make myself better in every way," he said. "Play harder and do better than everybody else. That's what I've got to do."