Steady improvement the story for Leak _ and Gators

Updated: October 28, 2003, 5:49 PM ET

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- College football is almost the same as the high school game for Florida quarterback Chris Leak, just faster and a bit more violent.

Game by game, Leak is proving that freshmen can do more than run the scout team and sit on the bench, and as he improves, so does his team. Using a first-year player as their primary quarterback for the first time since 1980, the 23rd-ranked Gators (5-3, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) will play for a share of the SEC East lead against No. 4 Georgia (7-1, 4-1) on Saturday in Jacksonville.

It's a position hardly anyone thought Florida would reach just a few weeks ago. Then again, nobody was counting on Leak getting better, seemingly by the snap.

"I'm playing smarter, doing a better job managing things," said Leak, the former North Carolina high school star who has thrown for 1,359 yards this season. "I'm going out there each week and just trying to keep moving along. I'm making adjustments and trying to get better."

He is a cool customer, essentially to the point of being dull.

Trained as well in the art of political correctness as he is in football, he talks relentlessly about "giving 100 percent," "getting better every game," "doing whatever I can to help the team" -- never anything that might spark a controversy.

While his teammates go to nightclubs and movies, Leak's idea of a fun evening is to stay home and watch some game film, or study the next game plan.

"The fact that Chris can probably recite the playbook is one thing, but being able to do it out there in front of 80,000 people at a very high level of execution is different," coach Ron Zook said.

As a way of easing Leak into the rigors of college football, Zook began the season by rotating him with sophomore Ingle Martin. By the fifth game, Leak had won the job outright. Only a week after that, both the quarterback and the coach were under harsh scrutiny.

Leak threw three interceptions in a 20-17 loss to Ole Miss, a defeat that sent the Gators to 3-3 and had many fans wondering not about their team's SEC chances, but whether they could simply qualify for a bowl game.

But Zook stuck with the freshman, and in back-to-back wins against LSU and Arkansas, Leak kept getting better. He threw no interceptions and two touchdowns against LSU. On both scoring throws, he hung in against blitzes and found the open receiver without panicking -- a remarkable feat considering he was sacked six times.

"That was a big improvement in his game," offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher said after the game. "Protecting the football and not giving them a chance to make a play."

Two weeks ago in a 33-28 win over Arkansas, he managed a good game -- exactly the thing the coaching staff asked him to do -- and kept getting up despite being hammered. The Razorbacks got called for three roughing-the-passer penalties.

"That's part of playing in the SEC," Leak said. "You're going to take those kind of hits. You have to prepare for them and protect yourself the best you can."

Next stop for Leak: The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, where he'll face an atmosphere that he's never seen before, along with the top-ranked defense in the country.

"I don't think he'll be scared or timid or anxious," offensive lineman Max Starks said. "I think he'll just go in there and do what he's done this entire season, which is play a solid game and be efficient."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index