Coker relishes QB life in the shadows

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- There was a story there, some humorous aside that fluttered through Jacob Coker's mind and brought an easy smile to his face after yet another question about that other quarterback.

He'd been asked if his friends back home in Mobile, Ala., were as interested in Jameis Winston as everyone else seems to be, and for a moment, Coker brightened and offered a hint of something deeper.

"Some of them..." he offered before catching himself. "Heck, never mind."

Six-foot-five with a cannon attached to his right shoulder and athleticism that seems incongruous with his country-boy frame, Coker oozes NFL-level talent. In most places,he'd already be a star. At Florida State, however, he's just the soft-spoken second fiddle whose most significant contribution to the local water-cooler conversation is as the necessary antagonist in Winston's storybook rise to fame.

And that's exactly how Coker wants it.

"I've never really been out in the press," Coker said. "I was a three-star [recruit] coming out. When I committed here, I was pretty sure nobody knew who I was. Heck, people still probably don't know who I am right now."

Indeed, everyone in Tallahassee, save head coach Jimbo Fisher, has skipped ahead to the obvious conclusion of the ongoing quarterback battle and tabbed Winston not just as the starter, but as a future Heisman winner. Magazine covers, message-board buzz and gushing pundits sing Winston's praises, and Coker gets only a passing nod. It's a scenario that suits both players well.

Winston's gregarious personality is impossible to hide. He's been the center of attention since he was a boy, when his father, Ant, used to pepper him questions during late-night, impromptu media sessions in front of the TV. During Florida State's annual fall media day Sunday, Winston worked the room with one joke after another, holding court with a throng of reporters scribbling down every word for posterity.

Coker wants none of that. He's affable in the way folks from Gulf coast Alabama usually are -- pleasant and well-mannered, but rarely offering more than asked. Every third sentence he speaks includes a subject, a verb and an "aw, heck."

"I'm obviously way more reserved, and Jameis is a funny guy," Coker said. "He's something else, but we have fun with it. We just go about it different ways. The way I focus is different than him, and that just makes us practice the best, I guess."

So throughout this summer of love for Winston, Coker has enjoyed the anonymity. The media and fans rave about the work Winston has done, but Coker is focused exclusively on the work he still has to do.

Outside the locker room the race has been won, but Coker insists he's still competing for the starting job. He's happy to give Winston the spotlight, but he has no intentions of handing over any playing time without a fight.

"I think it kind of motivates him," center Bryan Stork said. "You walk in the store and there's Jameis on the magazine. But Coker's like me -- always been underrated, but he has a lot of fire. Every time we get together, if it's golf or bolo in the backyard, Coker is competitive -- and you're probably not going to beat him."

The quarterbacks have shared reps with the first-team offense so far this fall, just as they did throughout the spring. Fisher said he won't name a starter until he's certain one has done enough to have earned the job, and that's not an announcement that seems likely to come soon.

Still, some things have changed. Clint Trickett, the veteran of FSU's quarterback contingent this spring, transferred to West Virginia, leaving Coker as the only QB with game experience. Winston's spring game was nearly flawless, while Coker struggled to keep pace while rehabbing a broken foot that limited his ability to move in the pocket. Now, Coker is healthy and eager to show what he can do without limitations.

"I got that boot off and I started running, and I feel great now," he said. "I feel faster and stronger than I've ever been."

That might mean the battle for reps at quarterback might be closer than most fans think.

Winston is a star in the making, and even Fisher doesn't deny that. But Coker's ability is immense, and he has the advantage of an extra year in the system and a handful of actual game-day snaps in his back pocket. When former NFL general manager and current Senior Bowl scout Phil Savage watched Florida State practice last week, he tweeted, "Winston and Coker may be the best #1 and #2 combo in the nation."

Yet someone has to be No. 1, and outside the locker room all signs point to Winston. Coker insists he isn't concerned. Trickett departed, but Coker said he never considered a transfer. Winston got the bulk of the first-team reps in the spring game, but Coker said he's never asked for reassurances from Fisher.

"I think his trust in us and what we're telling him has been tremendous, and his actions prove it," Fisher said. "He's had a very good camp so far."

Coker isn't interested in the spotlight, but on the practice field things are different. There, he's comfortable in his own skin, eager to showcase his talent. It's the one place where he doesn't have to toil in obscurity behind the bright, young star.

"There's no shadows on that practice field," Winston said. "There may be shadows to the media, but on the field, Coach Fisher and our offense sets the tempo."

Fisher's job now is to decide which of the two quarterbacks best sets that tempo, and in spite of all the off-the-field proclamations from media and fans, Coker is conceding nothing.

The hype and excitement hasn't changed the bottom line. Winston draws a crowd, and that's fine. Coker works best when it's just him and his teammates and a long swath of grass and hashmarks waiting to be conquered. Fame -- even if it's Winston's and not his -- hasn't changed a thing.

"I'd rather have people not know me off the field, if that's possible," Coker said. "I'd rather go out there and play football and just have fun with it."