Clemson’s Deshaun Watson was the quarterback everybody wanted. Alabama’s Jake Coker was the quarterback nobody would play.
On Monday their paths will collide in the College Football Playoff national championship game. Kickoff at University of Phoenix Stadium is 7:35 p.m.
Both quarterbacks dreamed of reaching this stage. It’s just taken Coker a little more time than he expected.
Coker became a starter in his last year of eligibility. He began his career at Florida State, sat out a redshirt season and backed up E.J. Manuel in his second season.
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As a sophomore, Coker lost the quarterback battle to Jameis Winston, and who could argue with that decision? Winston went on to win the Heisman Trophy and led the Seminoles to the national championship.
After the season, Coker, a native of Mobile, Ala., returned to his home state as a transfer. But once again, he lost a battle to become a starter, this time to Blake Sims in 2014.
Facing a final college season, Coker claimed the starting job, and opened all but one game, the Tide’s loss to Mississippi. Coker had struggled early and Alabama coach Nick Saban thought a change of pace would work against the Rebels. It backfired.
The Tide didn’t lose again as Coker grew more comfortable in an offense that features Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry. But Coker has been superb, completing 67.1 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions, and he has the Tide in a position to win their fourth national title since 2009.
As the years passed, Coker wasn’t discouraged, but he knew the sand was disappearing from the hourglass.
“They were all pretty tough,” Coker said about losing starting jobs. “This last one, I guess it was the toughest because I knew it was my last year. If I didn’t come through I would never be a starter.”
Coker has been seen as a game manager, until the Cotton Bowl triumph over Michigan State in the national semifinal. He completed 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns against the Spartans.
Clemson is well aware of Coker’s ability.
“He’s answered every challenge when people have done a good job of minimizing the run game a little bit,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “He’s made some big time plays, some big-time throws.”
If Clemson’s antenna is up for Coker, Alabama has the dual-threat Watson on full alert.
Watson, the consensus All-America and third-place Heisman finisher, had a breakout sophomore season with 3,699 yards passing with 31 touchdowns and 1,032 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns and looks to help Clemson win the program’s second national championship.
“I don’t know that anybody stops Deshaun Watson,” Saban said. “You’re talking about a phenomenal player who can beat you in a lot of different ways in terms of his passing ability, his ability to execute their offense effectively.
“He can extend plays in the passing, and I think he truly, truly understands what they want him to do and he gets it done on a consistent basis.”
Watson is the third player in Football Bowl Subdivision history to surpass 3,500 passing and 1,000 rushing yards in a season and the first since Johnny Manziel’s Heisman-winning 2012 season for Texas A&M.
You may recall Manziel and the Aggies defeated an Alabama team that went on to win the national championship.
Watson was a heavily recruited prospect out of Gainesville (Ga.) High and was an Alabama target.
“We thought very highly of him,” said Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. “He’s unique.”
The biggest danger to Smart is when Watson ad-libs.
“A lot of their biggest plays are broken-down plays,” Smart said. “He does a great job of that. We have to mix it up defensively.”
Alabama’s recent history with mobile quarterbacks has been hit-and-miss, but a strong defense has been the program’s constant, and this could be the nation’s best, especially a fierce front seven that includes standout tackle A’Shawn Robinson, linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive lineman Jonathan Allen.
The game will likely turn on how the Crimson Tide defends Watson, who is a better playmaker than Coker. But both have been effective in what they’ve been asked to do, and one final request has been made of them: win a national championship.