TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It’s not often that a decorated prep quarterback chooses the path of maximum resistance at the college level … and lives to tell about it on the NFL side.
But Jake Coker might be headed toward such a fortuitous fate.
As a highly touted recruit of Mobile, Ala., in 2011, Coker originally signed with Florida State and subsequently languished on the bench for three seasons behind E.J. Manuel and 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston — both first-round NFL picks.
The post-transfer wait at Alabama lasted one season, as Coker lagged behind Blake Sims in 2014 … before taking over the Crimson Tide offense in 2015.
In essence, Alabama was riding a three-year streak of starting seniors at quarterback (AJ McCarron, Sims, Coker) — an odd occurrence in this age of true-freshman starters and draft-eligible passers bolting school after their junior campaigns.
The run of seniority might have been halted after two seasons if Alabama head coach Nick Saban had fully committed to starting Cooper Bateman or freshman Blake Barnett — the Class of 2015’s No. 2-ranked pro-style quarterback (source: 247Sports.com) — over Coker.
That did not occur in full, though. For the season, the rock-steady Coker (3,110 yards passing, 23 total TDs last year) led the Crimson Tide to their fourth national championship since 2009.
(Barnett enters the fall as a redshirt freshman … and a possible starting candidate over Bateman.)
Even with a championship in hand, Coker still had some annoyances or minor indignities to overcome in pursuit of his NFL dream.
In February, the 6-foot-5, 232-pound passer didn’t receive an invitation to the National Scouting Combine, ceding those prized spots to quarterbacks from Liberty University (Josh Woodrum) and Louisiana Tech (former Florida passer Jeff Driskel).
Heck, Coker wasn’t even part of the QB cadre (including Oregon QB Vernon Adams) invisibly tossing balls (off-camera) to receivers at the combine while they ran various patterns on a route tree.
“I don’t even want to get started on that,” said Coker on Wednesday, regarding the combine snub. “It’s all good, man. Obviously, it pissed me off. But hey, it didn’t change my work ethic or the way I’ve been working. …
“It is what it is.”
And if the NFL combine had been a thing in the late 1970s or early 1980s, Hall of Famer Warren Moon (undrafted out of Washington) and Dave Krieg (undrafted out of Milton College) — respectively ranked No. 7 and No. 19 in all-time passing yards — likely would not have been invited to Indianapolis, either.
Coker finally got a chance to impress NFL scouts at Alabama’s Pro Day.
However, the event fell somewhat flat for three reasons:
a) Wednesday marked the inaugural day of NFL free agency, guaranteeing that few active head coaches or general managers would be on hand in Tuscaloosa. (For the record, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was on site.)
b) Some Alabama pass-catchers, according to Coker, weren’t at full strength for the session and subsequently declined to perform.
c) Coker’s primary targets were tailback and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry (the main attraction for scouts, prompting Coker to say, “Henry looked pretty dang good to me”) and senior wideout Richard Mullaney — who elicited many oohs and aahs for the impossible balls that were nearly caught (closing speed or heroic dives).
In other words, what would it take for Coker to garner an NFL franchise’s full attention? After all, he passed for 335 yards and two touchdowns in the national championship game — against a Clemson defense that could net four first- or second-round selections this spring.
“I just like to go out there and throw it hard, throw (the ball) where it’s supposed to be and hope (the NFL personnel) like it,” says Coker, who won every Alabama start he made last season. “We’ll see what happens.”
Coach Saban offered an interesting take on the combine when asked about Coker’s pro prospects.
“I think Jake has got a lot of upside. Jake only has one year when he really played and was The Man (as the starter). I think one reason Jake didn’t get invited to the combine wasn’t because of Jake, I think it is because there were 97 juniors who came out,” Saban said.
“I think that’s an issue and a problem we need to address with the NFL, because it’s unfair to some of the seniors because all those guys (draft-eligible underclassmen) get invited and some of them are not ranked as high as some of the seniors.”
If NFL scouts are anything like regular people, they’ll easily recall Coker’s final midfield pass from Wednesday, compared to throws from earlier in the session.
With Mullaney (38 catches, 390 yards, five TDs in 2015) flanked wide left, Coker executed a sweeping five-step drop, while shading to the right side. He then fired an across-the-field frozen rope on the receiver’s deep ‘in’ route — a picture-perfect pass that would have looked even better against a contingent of crestfallen defenders.
Not bad for a quarterback prospect with footwork that is a work in progress … and just one year’s worth of college starts under his championship belt.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.