Leak not awed by facing Miami

Originally Published: September 4, 2003
By Pat Forde | Special to ESPN.com

Following in the footsteps of Chris Simms, Tim Couch, the Brothers Manning and so many other quarterbacks who have gone before him, Chris Leak arrived in college with everything but palm fronds laid at his feet.

When schools start offering you scholarships in eighth grade, you develop an aura. When you go on to throw a national-record 185 touchdown passes in high school, recruiters twitch uncontrollably. And when you choose a college that just lost a quarterback who threw for 9,000 yards in three years, opening the door for immediate playing time -- well, as George Allen used to say, the future is now.

Specifically, the future is Saturday. Chris Leak and his Florida teammates travel to Miami, where we will find out what Life After Rex will really be about for the Gators. And whether Leak is ready, in game two as a true freshman, to play in the Orange Bowl against some of the biggest, fastest and nastiest college football has to offer.

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  • "A lot of people would say, 'Oh yeah, I want to do that,'" Florida offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher said. "Then when it gets a little closer they think, 'Weeellllll, maybe this doesn't look so good.'

    "He's not afraid of the situation. That doesn't mean he's going to light everything up, but he's not afraid."

    Leak isn't expected to start against the Hurricanes, but he is expected to play in relief of Ingle Martin. Last week, after an August shrouded in somewhat silly secrecy, they split time in a low-stress, ice-breaking devastation of San Jose State. Martin played the first two series, Leak the third, Martin the next three and then Leak getting more time after that. Martin was 14-of-23 for 196 yards and a touchdown; Leak was 10-of-14 for 111 yards and a score.

    It was an almost Spurrier-esque shuffling. But Vince Wilfork, D.J. Williams, Jonathan Vilma, Sean Taylor and Maurice Sykes were not in evidence last week. They will be Saturday to face a QB with 13 more career punts than pass attempts (Martin) and the baby-faced savant (Leak).

    "Your margin of error is a lot smaller than it was last week," Zaunbrecher said.

    The pregame plan calls for Martin and Leak to split playing time in roughly the same manner as last week. But Zaubrecher says the plan is "etched in butter," knowing that events are likely not to be as easily scripted against Miami. If either QB gets a hot hand -- or a really cold one -- the plan goes in the shredder.

    Zaunbrecher and coach Ron Zook will tell you that Martin is not just babysitting the position until Leak is up to full speed. Martin was a hotshot recruit in his own right a few years ago, signed by Steve Spurrier, and the redshirt sophomore has the better wheels for eluding the rush and running.

    But Leak is the kid this staff signed, the crown jewel of an excellent recruiting class and the guy nationally hailed as the Next Big Thing QB. Conventional thinking states that if Florida is going to return to the elite level after last year's 8-5 pratfall, it's going to be with Leak at quarterback.

    Zaunbrecher loves Leak's physical tools, but sounds even more enthusiastic about his mind. He coached a couple superstars at Marshall, and they come to mind when talking about Leak.

    "As far as his approach or preparation, he'd be similar to Byron (Leftwich) or Chad (Pennington)," Zaunbrecher said. "To be in his position as a true freshman is pretty unique."

    The question is whether Leak is capable of starting the revival against a rival, on the road, in his second game.

    Florida lost by 25 to Miami last year at home, with Rex Grossman, so this year it might not matter who starts at quarterback. Florida is a startling two-touchdown underdog -- no telling the last time the Gators were on the underdog end of that large a spread.

    The bigger quarterback talent might give you a better chance to win -- but the younger quarterback might also be quicker to lose confidence if things go wrong.

    Most young QBs -- even the future greats -- are not prepared for such a task. Look around the rest of the SEC: Eli Manning redshirted. So did David Greene. And Jared Lorenzen. Rex Grossman did at Florida, too.

    Couch and Simms played as true freshmen at Kentucky and Texas, respectively. But Simms only played in six games and started one, throwing just 36 passes. Couch walked into a disastrous scenario at Kentucky, spending part of his freshman season running the option, of all things.

    When Bill Curry finally made Couch the starter in his fourth game, it was a no-win situation: at Florida, in an offense completely counter to his strengths.

    The Gators won 65-0. Curry was fired a month later. Couch went on to throw for a bazillion yards under Hal Mumme and was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 draft.

    Unlike Couch, Leak and Martin at least have Florida-level talent around them. In fact, Zook believes the players surrounding the quarterback position are demonstrably better than last year.

    "We're improved on offense at the running back and wide receiver positions," Zook said. "So we'll let the quarterbacks play in the system and grow in the position, basically."

    We'll see whether Chris Leak's growth curve makes a steep incline Saturday against Miami, or whether the Gators wait for a softer spot to hand the offense to their freshman QB.

    Pat Forde covers college football for the Louisville Courier-Journal.

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