Thursday, September 19, 2013
QB Coker making most of second-string job
By David M. Hale
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- When it was over, Jacob Coker got a slew of texts and phone calls from home. Friends and family offered support, and that helped.
Still, there's not much that can diminish the sting of losing out on a hotly contested quarterback competition, and no amount of commiserating was going to change Coker's role as the backup to one of the most talked-about players in the country.
"It was tough getting used to it, because nobody wants to sit the bench if you're any kind of competitor," Coker said. "It was a hard thing."
Jacob Coker might be the backup quarterback, but he plays like he's still competing to be No. 1.
It's an odd dynamic at Florida State. A month ago, Jimbo Fisher insisted the race for the starting job was too close to call, with Coker and Jameis Winston trading blows on the practice field, two QBs with NFL skill sets going toe to toe, again and again, hidden from the prying eyes of a desperate fan base.
Today, Coker is something of a footnote in a story that has taken on a life of its own. Through two games, Winston has dominated the opposition, thrown more touchdowns than incompletions, and become a household name throughout the college football landscape. Coker has seen action, but only because Winston has played so well, not because he has struggled.
That juxtaposition created an enormous bit of speculation and supposition that doesn't necessary match what has happened behind the scenes.
Take that quarterback competition, for example. Given Winston's immense hype, sterling spring game and ferocious debut this fall, Fisher's insistence that the job wasn't won until the waning days of camp has largely been brushed aside as coachspeak.
"Not at all," said receiver Christian Green, who worked extensively with both quarterbacks during fall camp. "Both guys can definitely play at this level. It was something that, when Jameis came out and had a great Week 1, everybody kind of was like, 'Oh.' But it was a great competition between those guys."
Then there's the assumption that Coker's days in Tallahassee are numbered. Phil Savage, a former NFL GM and scout for the Senior Bowl suggested Coker might be the best backup in the country. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. wondered if Coker might be a future first-round NFL pick should he transfer for a starting job elsewhere. And so the story goes that Coker simply is biding his time until he can leave for greener pastures.
If that's the case, Coker's teammates say, he sure hasn't shown any hint of frustration.
"You should see us, just come to practice and watch us," Winston said. "Nothing is different. It's still like fall camp to us. We're still out there having fun."
It's not that Coker doesn't understand the situation. And it's not that he doesn't appreciate the assumption that he's too good to sit the bench. It's just that he is too much of a competitor simply to shrug off a lost battle and jump at the first consolation prize he finds.
"I've got to do my thing on the field," Coker said. "I appreciate what they say. It means a lot -- it really does. But I've still got to go out there and work just as hard as I did when nobody knew who I was."
And it's not just talk.
In a game marked by highlight-reel passes last Saturday, it might have been Coker who delivered the most remarkable throw. On a second-and-7 late in the third quarter, Coker took the snap and faked a handoff. When he turned to survey the field, two Nevada defenders lunged toward him. He darted out of the pocket, escaped a trio of pass rushers and, just before he was pummeled, unleashed a 20-yard bullet down the sideline and into the hands of freshman receiver Levonte Whitfield.
The play underscored everything Coker does so well -- the mobility, the decision making, the cannon arm. It was the first time the public has seen why the competition was so close this fall.
"He's a great player, and he's got a big arm," cornerback P.J. Williams said. "He throws the hardest out of anyone out there."
Coker largely shrugged off the throw. While Winston has enjoyed and, at times, endured the early limelight, Coker is every bit the quiet southern kid from Mobile, Ala., without much in the way of an ego.
"We won the game, and I got to go in and play a little bit," he said. "That's always fun."
The hope, Coker said, is that he'll play a little more this week. With FCS foe Bethune-Cookman on the docket, it's a game any backup quarterback would have circled on his calendar. Winston builds a big lead, Coker enters in the second half and gets a taste of the spotlight, too.
It's not the way he hoped it would play out, but Coker's impressive fall camp might have a lot to do with why he's getting a chance to play now. He pushed Winston, Winston got better, and through two games Florida State is reaping the rewards.
"Jacob could go anywhere and be their quarterback," Winston said. "By having him here, that's the kind of push that you need. I can never get complacent, because I know someone can come right there and fill in and do the same thing."
It's nice to hear, and Coker's not above taking a few compliments. But all the platitudes don't change reality. He'll play Saturday against Bethune-Cookman, and maybe a few more snaps the next week at Boston College. But as the games get bigger and the snaps more significant, it is Winston who will be under center when it matters most.
That's a tough pill to swallow for a quarterback everyone says could be great, but Coker is playing the role with class.
"It was a tough decision, but [Fisher] felt like Jameis is the guy who could win the most games," Coker said. "He's the boss, and I'm going to support him. He obviously knows way more than I do about football and the team. Whatever helps us win, I'm all behind it."