PHOENIX — There was a time when Alabama produced flamboyant, gunslinger-style quarterbacks such as Joe Namath and Kenny “The Snake” Stabler. But for all the success in the Nick Saban era, his quarterbacks have been efficient, game-managing types who carried a briefcase to work, guys such as Greg McElroy, AJ McCarron, Blake Sims and now Jake Coker.
Perhaps that’s why it came as a surprise that Coker played so spectacularly when Michigan State stacked the box to stop Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry and dared Saban to rely on his quarterback to win the Cotton Bowl. Coker responded by completing 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns in the 38-0 win that sent the Crimson Tide (13-1) to the College Football Playoff championship game against Clemson on Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium.
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Henry may have won the biggest award in college football, but when center Ryan Kelly was asked to name Alabama’s heart-and-soul player, he said: “I would say Jake Coker. He surely embodies what it means to be a great team player. He’s only been here for two years and got named a team captain by everybody. It just goes to show the character and commitment he brings every day. He is a guy that does not speak a lot, but what he does with his feet and what he does with his arm and the presence he commands in the huddle sets him apart from any other person.”
Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander has said the Tigers have the ability to play man-to-man coverage against Alabama wide receivers Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart and allow the rest of the defense to crowd the box to stop Henry. Although Alexander described Coker as a “great player,” he added that the Tigers “have seen better.”
After the way Alabama handled the Spartans’ defense, Coker is skeptical about whether Clemson really will play straight-up man coverage outside.
“I don’t know exactly how they’ll try to cover us,” Coker said. “I highly doubt it will be the same as the way Michigan State tried to cover us, but we’ll see . . . Alexander is really impressive. He’s going to be as good as anybody we’ve played this year . . . Their [defensive line] is a big, athletic group of guys. They make plays and get around the ball and affect the quarterback. We’re going to have to do our best to keep them out of there.”
Asked if he believes he earned more respect from opposing defenses with his Cotton Bowl performance, Coker said: “I don’t know. My main concern is this game right here. Whatever respect they have for the way I throw the ball, the way I play quarterback, it means nothing to me. It’s about winning games and we are where we need to be and we need to win this next one.”