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Quiet Alabama QB Coker wants to silence Spartans

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Dallas — This soft spot in Alabama's otherwise barbed-wire football compound is supposed to be Jake Coker.

He can lull you into thinking just that.

Standing there in his washed-out 'Bama baseball cap, wearing black shorts and a gray long-sleeve T-shirt, speckled with a three-day beard, and talking with a drawl as deep as delta mud, he looks and sounds about as exciting as some forgotten bench-warmer.

Which is what he almost came to be ahead of helping deliver Nick Saban's team into tonight's college football semifinal game against Michigan State at AT&T Stadium.

Coker's first brush with irrelevance came at Florida State, where he couldn't begin to buy time from Jameis Winston. A transfer followed and Coker seemed destined for more seat slivers with the Crimson Tide, for which he was so uninspiring after two opening victories in 2015 that Saban decided he would go with a different starter in 'Bama's third game, at Ole Miss.

A bad mistake in hindsight, rare for Saban.

But it became a great chance for Coker to prove how nasty he can turn toward those who underrate him, which might be Michigan State's temptation heading into tonight's showdown.

Coker leaped from the bench that night in Oxford, Miss., like a pilot in an ejection seat, and nearly pushed 'Bama to a comeback triumph against Ole Miss rather than to a 43-37 loss and the Tide's only defeat of 2015.

MSU faces 'Bama defense that's 'like a bunch of caged animals'

Coker arrived with a bayonet fixed on winning back his job, and his peace of mind. He threw for 201 yards and three touchdowns. He ran for 58 yards. The Crimson Tide came within a touchdown that evening of an unbeaten season.

Job restored.

"He won the team over," Saban said earlier this month, speaking at a press briefing in Tuscaloosa, Ala., after which Coker and his three-day beard and dressed-down ensemble also spoke.

At a news conference Sunday, a man so many critics consider one of 'Bama's few vulnerabilities talked about that night at Ole Miss. And why, perhaps, he has since been flashing a 72-percent completion grade as the Tide has won 10 consecutive games.

"I can't tell you I was happy about it," Coker said of his third-game demotion, news of which was delivered by Saban an hour before kickoff. "I was pretty angry. They (teammates) knew I had to be unhappy about it. But I definitely didn't act like it or complain about it, or anything like that."

This is fine citizenship displayed by a 6-foot-5, 232-pound man, now 23 years old, who has never lost in the 12 games he has started at Alabama.

Still, the tough customers aren't necessarily sold.

They point to his quarterback rating, which is 43rd in the country. They make clear that another of his prized moments, a late drive to nip Tennessee, was a product not so much of two Coker passes that helped keep a team alive, but two outstanding catches on tosses that weren't exactly threaded.

They make mention, too, of an obvious preference shown by Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.

They want the ball not so much in Coker's hand, but in the paws of Heisman Trophy running back Derrick Henry.

This makes sense to any football pragmatist. To a point, anyway.

Others see it as testimony to the fact Alabama, once again, is attempting to win a championship under Saban with a quarterback who is hardly a gunslinger.

In fact, it is curious that the Tide under Saban has so steadily wiped out opponents with line of relatively undistinguished QBs, at least by the standards of future NFL talent: Blake Sims, AJ McCarron, Greg McElroy, and now Coker.

But a quarterback who wins to the tune of a 1.000 percentage in his dozen starts not only is doing something right, he also ranks as a product of his buddies in pads.

This is why the Spartans could be in trouble tonight even as they view Coker as an area of opportunity.

Alabama's offensive front is superb and perhaps a match for MSU's all-star defensive gang up front.

The Tide also have three sterling receivers: Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart, as well as tight end O.J. Howard.

Coker is running the Saban-Kiffin show for a reason. He can minimize mistakes (eight interceptions in 13 games for the Tide). He can complete at least two-thirds of his passes (65-plus percent for his career) to receivers who, typical of Saban's crew, rank as game-breakers.

And when you can manage all of that, as well as hand a football to a back as dazzling as Henry, well, you can beat a lot of teams.

Looking at Coker as some sort of deficiency has about it a certain relativism that tempts opposing fans to think their team has a chance to exploit someone or some area of a team's attack.

It is one of those aspects of Alabama that should be considered at a critic's risk. Coker might not be Connor Cook. But he and his team might well win, which is an event that seems to have become something of a habit for Bryant Jacob Coker.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

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