Leak another twist in Gator-Vol rivalry

Originally Published: September 16, 2004
By Chris Low | Special to ESPN.com

Chris Leak knows the feeling. He's been there and done that.

A year ago at this time, Leak was the true freshman quarterback getting ready for his first Southeastern Conference game and doing so while sharing snaps. Florida went into the Tennessee game with Ingle Martin and Leak (in that order) as its two quarterbacks.

Martin has since transferred to Furman, and Leak has emerged as one of the country's most feared passers.

  Will Georgia be able to shake off the loss to Auburn? Can Mississippi State really win five games? Where is LSU heading for the postseason? Is Phillip Fulmer on the hot seat? Our SEC notebook addresses those questions and much more.
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  • "This is Chris Leak's offense now, and they definitely believe in him," Tennessee defensive end Karlton Neal said. "We barely even got a taste of him last year."

    That obviously will change Saturday night in Neyland Stadium when Florida and Tennessee stage their annual September tug-of-war for early dibs on the SEC's Eastern Division crown. With Georgia's rise to power, the winner of this game is by no means a lock in the East. But the last time the loser made it to the SEC championship game was 1997 when the Vols backed their way to Atlanta.

    "It's a big game, and you've got to be ready for anything," said Leak, who threw just 12 passes in last season's 24-10 loss to Tennessee.

    If he were giving advice, that would be his for the Vols' two true freshman quarterbacks, Brent Schaeffer and Erik Ainge. Their debut was impressive in the season-opening 42-17 romp of UNLV. But as Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer told them both this week, it's on to "big boy" football now against the Gators.

    The Vols again plan to use both and will rotate them equally, unless one should happen to get hot and really starts to move the team.

    Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said one of the most impressive things about Schaeffer and Ainge has been their understanding of how much different it will be against the Gators.

    "The speed of the game is going to pick up," Sanders said. "The intensity is going to pick up. They may be cussed a little bit more at the line of scrimmage. They may be called a few names they've never been called before. It should be fun for them. It's going to be exciting, and hopefully, they will respond the right way."

    For Leak, this might be the first time he's played in a game at Neyland Stadium. But he's hardly a stranger to Rocky Top.

    His older brother, C.J., is a senior at Tennessee, and there was a time when Leak was considered a lock for the Vols. He was a regular at practices and scrimmages, attended football camp at Tennessee and came to several games.

    But when C.J. was pulled so early from the Georgia game in 2002, Leak felt his brother had been betrayed. He called Fulmer untrustworthy in an ESPN.com recruiting diary and crossed the Vols off his list, even though they had anticipated Leak's reaction and were already trying to get in on other high school quarterbacks.

    The Vols struck out at quarterback during the 2003 class, which is one of the reasons they're playing a pair of true freshmen this season.

    "Things happen for a reason," Leak said. "That's in the past. I'm really trying to focus on how to help my team win."

    Fulmer has also tried to downplay any bad blood that might exist. Some of his defensive players have had a more difficult time hiding their feelings.

    One of the more intriguing subplots this week is the fact that C.J. has switched back to defense after playing H-back late in the game against UNLV. That means he's sitting in all of the Vols' defensive meetings.

    Linebacker Kevin Burnett, a two-year captain, has been especially outspoken in the past about his disdain for Chris Leak. But this week, Burnett is doing his best to bite his tongue about Leak and any conversations he might be having with C.J. leading up to the game.

    "To be honest with you, I can't comment. I'm not supposed to," said Burnett, who was incensed when Leak showed up at a closed scrimmage in the spring of 2003 after already signing with the Gators.

    "I kind of have my hands tied behind my back right now. I'm happy for C.J., who's making another move to linebacker and is trying to get some playing time. But out of respect for my teammates, I cannot comment about (Chris Leak) right now."

    Either way, the Vols want to send a message to Leak early.

    "One thing I've noticed about Leak is that he hates to be hit," Tennessee defensive tackle Jesse Mahelona said. "You give him one real good shot, and that will affect him the rest of the game. That's usually how it is for most quarterbacks."

    Obviously, Mahelona didn't see the LSU game last season in Baton Rouge. The Tigers sacked Leak six times, but he kept getting back up and threw a pair of touchdown passes to lead the Gators to a 19-7 victory, the only loss LSU would suffer on its way to the national championship.

    Florida linebacker Channing Crowder said that was vintage Leak, who amazed his teammates by being so unflappable as a true freshman.

    "I'll talk junk to him for 15 minutes, and he'll throw a touchdown pass and look at me," Crowder said. "He won't smile or frown. He's what you want in a quarterback. He's a focused guy.

    "He doesn't worry about nothing else but throwing the ball to the receiver he's supposed to."

    Chris Low covers the SEC for The Nashville Tennessean.

    Chris Low | email

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