CFP notebook: Alabama QB Coker living his dream

Anthony Gimino

January 10, 2016 at 12:14 pm.

Dec 31, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Jake Coker (14) is pressured by Michigan State Spartans defensive lineman Malik McDowell (4) in the third quarter in the 2015 CFP semifinal at the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 31, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Jake Coker (14) is pressured by Michigan State Spartans defensive lineman Malik McDowell (4) in the third quarter in the 2015 CFP semifinal at the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

PHOENIX — As a kid, throwing the ball around the backyard of his family’s home in Mobile, Ala., Jake Coker dreamed of exactly what he will be trying to do Monday night.

“Winning the national championship for Alabama,” he said.

But he could have never imagined his path to the College Football Playoff national championship game in Glendale, Ariz. His journey has included five years, two schools, injuries, a couple of lost starting battles and a benching three games into his senior season.

“It might not be exactly what you thought you would get, but as long as you keep working and go about doing stuff the right way, you’ll get something you want in the end,” Coker said.

Coker is the steady hand at the helm of the Alabama offense that will take on Clemson at University of Phoenix Stadium. His “game-manager” status is often flung as an insult, especially when he is stacked against the other quarterback in this matchup — dynamic Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson.

The Tigers are the team that likes to play the underdog/disrespect card, but Coker might have them beat. The original nameplate above his interview space on Saturday didn’t even have his name right. He was “Jay” Coker.

How about one big final game to make a name for himself?

Senior center Ryan Kelly called him the “heart and soul” of the team.

“He surely embodies what it means to be a great team player,” Kelly said.

“He has only been here for two years and got named a team captain by everybody on this team. It just goes to show the character and commitment he brings every day.

“He is a guy that does not speak a lot. He is not going to be the hype guy or have halftime speeches, but what he does with his feet and what he does with his arm and presence he commands in the huddle sets him apart from any other person.”

Coker signed with Florida State, redshirted, spent a year as a backup, then, understandably, lost a competition with future Heisman winner Jameis Winston, who led the Seminoles to the 2013 national title.

Coker (6-foot-5, 232 pounds) transferred to Alabama, arriving as an immediately-eligible graduate with all the proper recommendations and a powerful right arm. He was tabbed the potential savior, but senior Blake Sims, a career backup, won the job and took the Tide to the national semifinals.

Coach Nick Saban, saying in the spring he was waiting for Coker to “take the bull by the horns,” wasn’t convinced even after the season started. He benched Coker in the third game against Ole Miss — a 43-37 loss — but Coker threw three touchdowns in relief of Cooper Bateman and solidified the job the rest of the way.

In his first four games, Coker completed 55.3 percent of his passes with four interceptions.

In his last 10 games, Coker completed 73.1 percent of his passes (179 of 245) with just four interceptions.

“I think Coker has played well all year,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.

“He’s answered every challenge when people have done a good job of minimizing the run game a little bit. He’s made some big-time plays, big-time throws. He’s thrown a couple balls into double and triple coverage and their guys are making plays.”

When Michigan State stacked the line of scrimmage in the national semifinal Cotton Bowl to try to take away Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry, Coker made the Spartans pay. He was 25 of 30 for 286 yards in the 38-0 win.

“That game right there was no surprise,” Henry said. “He’s got the talent to do that every week.”

Michigan State’s defense was good; Clemson’s is better.

Tigers brash cornerback Mackensie Alexander is a future NFL first-rounder who will try to lock down Alabama rising star Calvin Ridley, a worthy heir to the Julio Jones/Amari Cooper receiving throne. Jayron Kearse could be the first strong safety selected in the NFL Draft. Free safety T.J. Green will be a tough read for Coker, because he plays all over.

“He does what he does,” Alexander said of Coker. “I think we’ve seen better. But he’s a great player.”

Coker, fortified by setbacks, has finally arrived at his destination: A chance to hoist college football’s biggest prize with the Crimson Tide.

“To be here, to be able to play for the national championship for my home team … you can’t put a price on that,” he said.

Shaq’s status

All eyes will be on Clemson junior defensive end Shaq Lawson in warm-ups, as he tries to come back from a sprained MCL, suffered early in the Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma.

“We expected him to play,” Swinney said in a Sunday morning press conference.

“Hopefully he’ll be able to perform and play to the level that we all know he can … He looked good yesterday. But again, until you get out there and you’re playing in a game of this magnitude with the intensity and physicality, you never know.

“But he’s done everything that he needs to do to play the game.”

Lawson leads the nation with 23.5 tackles for loss, including 10.5 sacks. The consensus All-American has announced he will enter the 2016 NFL Draft.

Kirby’s swan song

Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart has been with Nick Saban at LSU, with the Miami Dolphins and for all nine seasons at Alabama. This will be his final game before he takes over full-time as head coach of Georgia, his alma mater.

“Kirby has done a fantastic job in every way in terms of relationships with players, developing players, recruiting players, doing a good job of implementing scheme, system, getting people to buy in,” Saban said.

“I certainly appreciate the fact that he’s stuck here with us and done a really good job so far in trying to finish this year for our players. I’m sure he’s going to be a very, very successful head coach.”

Chasing history

Saban is going for his fourth national title in seven years, having won at Alabama in 2009, 2011 and 2012. He also won the 2003 BCS title while the head coach at LSU.

Bear Bryant won six national titles at Alabama between 1961 and 1979, the most ever in the wire-service era (since 1936). Saban is tied with Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy with four. Leahy won all his titles from 1943 to 1949.

“Coach Saban and what he’s done, I mean, he’s one of the greatest coaches that’s ever coached the game,” Swinney said.

“Regardless of what happens Monday night, you can’t argue that. He’s already won four national championships. This is the first one I’ve sniffed as a coach, and he’s going for his fifth. It’s incredible.

“People sometimes will say, well, anybody can go win at Alabama. Well, no, that’s not the case. Not everybody can coach a great team. Not everybody can coach a great player, and I think he has a gift to be able to do that.”