Shunned by Combine
A 6'-5", 235 lb. quarterback that never lost a game in college (14-0) did not receive an invitation to compete in the NFL Scouting Combine. He also led his team to the 2015 NCAA National Championship. From my vantage point, he was the MVP of the championship game. So, what's the problem? It is that Alabama's Jake Coker was not on any scouting lists in 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012. Why? He had never started a game since his senior year in high school, that's why. The chemistry on this 2015 team was excellent, all for one-one for all. Without Derrick Henry, Alabama was mediocre. Without center Ryan Kelly, Alabama was good. Without Jake Coker, Alabama does not win the national championship. He was the perfect quarterback to run the offense that Coach Nick Saban forced Lane Kiffen to implement. Take away the Ole Miss game where Kiffen talked Saban into starting Cooper Bateman instead of Jake Coker. The decision almost cost the Tide a chance at the SEC title. When Coker was finally put in the game, Ole Miss was comfortably ahead. The only way to catch up was to throw, throw, throw. As a result Coker had two passes intercepted. However he did pull Alabama within striking distance. Ole Miss hung on desperately for a six point win, a game that Alabama should have won. For fourteen games Jake Coker ran the Alabama offense as if he had designed it. His main asset was his ability to avoid turnovers. The power running of Henry set up the Alabama passing game which developed into a lethal weapon.
What difference does this really mean to me. I don't have a dog in the fight! Well, maybe I do. I have studied, played, coached and written about the game of football for over 60 years. Through happenstance it has been my good fortune to meet many great players, coaches and NFL scouts, from whom I learned a lot about the game. It has been a passion of mine. I probably was infected the night that I saw my uncle, Tommy Jones, playing fullback for the Camden Tigers in 1943. The lights shining on those flashy helmets, the pageantry of the game, the excitement of the crowd left an indelible picture in my mind as I sat on my fathers shoulders in order to see this spectacular event. I was only five years old. The disease has been with me for seventy-two years, unfortunately.
One of those football people that influenced me was a local hero who played football at Loretta, now known as Montgomery Catholic Preparatory School. Milt Von Mann was a 5-9" Marine combat veteran of the bloody war in Korea. He looked to be about 4' - 9" wide across his shoulders. After Korea, Von Mann played for Coach Frank Mosley at Virginia Tech. Milt went on to coach at several high schools and colleges, finally settling down in Nashville as counselor at Father Ryan High School, where he had previously coached. During his career, he met many NFL scouts. As a result, he became a scout for the Cincinnati Bengals. He became interested in the players that he had scouted who were not drafted. So he started a combine for players that had been overlooked, or who had not had an opportunity to play in college. That's where I come in. I helped Von Mann run these "minor league" combines in Birmingham and Nashville. In coaching, one learns a lot about people. What makes them tick. What motivates them. What they will do in a crisis situation. How they can overcome some physical deficiencies and excel anyway. We did not have as much success in placing overlooked players with teams in the NFL, AFL or CFL. But, we had a few, and that made it worth it to Milt. Bad health forced Von Mann to give up this dream. He started writing a book, he said because of what he had seen me do when I left coaching. That may or may not have been his inspiration. He did finish a book entitled The Lonely Hunter. It was about the travails of an NFL scout constantly on the road. My experiences with Milton Von Mann are important to this story to alleviate any doubt that the process of me evaluating talent is not that of a neophyte. Unfortunately, my friend passed away before he could get his book in print and on the market. It was a great story!
Nick Saban took quite a chance on hiring Lane Kiffen in the spring of 2014. The brash young coach had already failed at the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee and Southern California. His father Monte Kiffen was one of the most respected defensive coachs in the country. The father did his job well and kept a low profile. His desire to be a head coach is unknown to me. But his knowledge of defensive football was questioned by no one. The son, who grew up in this football environment, decided to excel on the other side of the football. There is no question as to his ability to coach offense. However, he has never kept a low profile like his daddy. He had been loud, antagonistic and braggadocios in his three head coaching jobs. Obviously, that was not a good approach. Some were surprised to see Saban reach out to a person like this who was unemployed with few opportunities in front of him. Most coaches considered him to be a problem that they did not need. Nick Saban had the foresight and the confidence to hire "Lane Kiffen's mind" in the belief that he could control his mouth. After thinking about the hire, it occurred to me that Nick Saban was the only coach in America that could control Lane Kiffen. That he did! Lane Kiffen now seems like a little boy who knows he had been wrong and has found a man to straighten him out, and maybe in the long run, help him get another head coaching job. This is yet to be determined. From my standpoint, Lane Kiffen has learned more from Saban than Saban has learned from Kiffen's creative offensive mind.
All of this is to say that Nick Saban tried to give Kiffen as much control over the offense as he was comfortable with in the 2014 season.
In my mind, Blake Sims had to be the starter in the first game in 2014. He had earned it through his dogged determination to be a good football player. He was a good football player. It was also in my mind that by mid-season Jake Coker would be playing as much or more than Blake Sims. However Lane Kiffen's mind ran away from him as he constantly adjusted each game plan to feature Amari Cooper and Blake Sims. Sims set many Alabama passing records with this approach, surprisingly with Derrick Henry on the bench. However, there was no 2014 national championship in the Alabama record book. Amari Cooper, T. J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry were the players to build the offense around, not Blake Sims. Sims is not to blame for not winning the 2014 championship. It was the plan.Who designed the plan? Lane Kiffen.
Before the start of the 2015 season, I talked with Coach Saban about his offense that had set many passing and total offensive records in 2014. Yet, this offense could not produce in the playoffs, ie., Ohio State in the semi-finals of the first four team NCAA Championship. Coach Saban rarely gives a straight answer. He likes to keep people guessing. My main question to him was about a statement he had made after the 2014 season saying that "Alabama got away from who we really are." His indication to me was that he felt that he had given too long a leash to Lane Kiffen, which resulted in a real struggle to get to the championship play-offs. Go back and look at the tape of the Ole Miss game, the Arkansas game, the LSU game and of course the debacle of the Ohio State game.
There is a misnomer that Ohio State mauled Alabama. Dissect that game and you can see where Alabama's game plan disintegrated. The players played hard and could have won handily. In other words, Blake Sims set many passing records for Alabama, but this was not Alabama.
Alabama is used to pounding teams into submission by the fourth quarter. Astonishingly, the lack of using the best running back in America in place of an injured T. J.Yeldon allowed good defense (Ohio State) to double Amari Cooper. Doubling Cooper left one-on-one opportunities with the other receivers. However, Kiffen wanted to prove how talented he was in taking a 5-11 fifth year senior who had never started a game at any position and turn him into a great quarterback. After all he was smart enough to have recruited Sims to Tennessee. It worked. Blake Sims is now in the record books at Alabama as one of the greatest passers ever. What is not in the record books is a 2014 national championship. Alabama was so close, but so predictable - Sims to Cooper from every imaginable position on the field. At the same time two great running backs were basically pass blocking for most of the season. T. J. Yeldon carried most of the load with the future Heisman trophy winner Derrick Henry sitting on the bench. With Yeldon only 80% in the game with Ohio State, Derrick Henry ran the ball only 13 times at an average of over 8 yards per carry. The game was put in the hands of Blake Sims instead of Henry. Not Sim's fault. The decision was made by Kiffen. That is why my conversation with Coach Saban before the 2015 season made me believe that he would give Kiffen less control over an offense that has always been built around two good, powerful running backs who could wear the opponent down in the fourth quarter. A passing game off of this type of attack is what Alabama is known for. It is what Saban is known for. It is what Coach Saban taught Lane Kiffen in the 2015 season. There is a national championship in the Alabama record book because Saban's experiment with Kiffen finally paid dividends as Kiffen learned to listen to Saban. Maybe Kiffen will be a head coach some day. However, he handled the quarterback situation with selfish motives. This cost Alabama a national championship in 2014, and may have caused a deserving young man a chance to be invited to the NFL combine. The combine is like a job interview with 32 national football teams.
There is a silver lining in this story for Jake Coker. Because of his size, his arm, his brain, and his competitive nature and his proven record as a champion, he will get a good look by the scouts at Alabama's pro-day in Tuscaloosa after the combine is over. It is my belief that he will be offered a free agent contract by several teams. This process will allow Coker to pick the team he wants, instead of being drafted in the sixth round by the Cleveland Browns. In my judgement, he would have only been drafted in the late rounds even if he had gone to the Combine. The intangibles that Jake Coker has cannot be measured by his athleticism. You have to give him a team and a football.
Alabama sent an impressive group to the combine which started on Wednesday, February 24th in Indianapolis, Indiana. It was interesting to watch. Reggie Ragland, Jarren Reed, Ryan Kelly, Cyrus Jones, Kenyan Drake, Derrick Henry, Dominick Jackson and D. J. Pettway were the nine players selected by the NFL scouting combine.
Surprisingly, Auburn sent nine former players as well. Two of these players did not play for Auburn in 2015. D'haquille Williams entered the 2015 season as a potential first round pick. His chances were considerably diminished when Coach Gus Malzahn dismissed him from the team. His off the field behavior has cost him millions of dollars. Some people never learn! Devaunte Sigler played considerably as a freshman at Auburn but transferred to Jacksonville State. The other Auburn players who were invited made contributions to the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Peyton Barber, Shon Coleman, Kris Frost, Jonathon Jones, Ricardo Louis, Cassanova McKinzy and Avery Young all have good chances to be drafted.
As impressive as it is to send nine players to the combine, Ohio State is sending 14 and Notre Dame 10. Even though Alabama won the national championship, it is my opinion that Ole Miss will have more first round picks than Alabama. Look for left tackle Laremy Tunsil, Robert Nkemdichi, the outstanding defensive tackle that played fullback on the goal line and Laquon Treadwell, maybe the top wide receiver in the draft. The three should go in the first round.
All of this attention is geared toward 300 players improving their draft status for the NFL Draft, April 28 through April 30 in Chicago. Their performance at the Combine can make them millions or lose them millions.
What a problem to have!