Alabama's Jake Coker shows he's no weak link

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Alabama's Jake Coker throws in the second quarter Thursday night.

Arlington, Texas – Supposedly, he was the weak link.

That would be Jake Coker, the guy standing at the dais late Thursday night, wearing a red Alabama T-shirt, and holding a Most Valuable Player award the size of a garden tractor.

If he's Alabama's soft spot, Clemson is in some peril on Jan. 11 when the Crimson Tide and Tigers play in college football's national championship game at Glendale, Ariz.

"I wasn't surprised at all by the game he had tonight," Nick Saban, the Alabama head coach, said after his team walloped Michigan State, 38-0, in Thursday night's Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium.

Nor, probably, should anyone have been curious as to how a senior quarterback hit on 25-of-30 passes, for 286 yards and two touchdowns, in a college football semifinal game that ended the Spartans' season.

Coker finished his senior season with fury, completing 72 percent of his passes in his last nine games.

Yes, he had help. Derrick Henry, Alabama's running back, won this year's Heisman Trophy. Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart and O.J. Howard caught passes plenty, as they did Thursday night, with Ridley grabbing eight for 138 yards.

"It makes things a lot easier on me, a lot easier than it should be," Coker said, sitting to the left of his coach as he, and teammate Cyrus Jones, talked about a New Year's Eve dismantling of the Spartans.

"So do all the other guys out there, man. They just go up and make plays and made me (tonight) look better than I should have."

Well, thanks for the humility. But it wasn't working Thursday after Coker had pretty much machine-gunned MSU's secondary with passes that Ridley & Co. found on target and eminently squeezable.

This night embodied a wondrous a turnaround for a quarterback whose football life hasn't always been as blissful.

Coker, who is 6-foot-5, 232 pounds, began his college crusade as a quarterback at Florida State. But he ran into problems there, primarily the presence of one Jameis Winston.

Coker decided a transfer might be in his interests. It was. And then it wasn't.

He was a starter at the beginning of the 2015 season, but Saban wasn't wild about his thought processes and how tentativeness seemed to be compromising his skills.

So, he benched him ahead of a September game against Ole Miss.

After the Crimson Tide got into a bad hole against the Rebels, Saban retrieved Coker from the bench and watched him nearly pull out a victory in what became Alabama's only loss of the season.

After that ugly night, everything changed – for 'Bama, and for Coker. They haven't lost a game since.

"He's pretty much done a good job all year long in terms of whatever we've asked him to do," Saban said late Thursday, an hour or so before a new year descended upon Texas. "He never complains that we don't throw (the ball) downfield enough.

"He just tries to do what he can do for his team."

As in, help them win.

Underestimate that effort, and the quarterback skills required, at one's own risk.