Time will Tell: The Case of the Perpetually Underrated Chris Leak

By: Steve Anderson

Chris Leak is the all-time Gator career leader in passing yards (11,213) completions (895); and is second only to Tim Tebow in passing touchdowns (88).

Despite the gaudy numbers Leak has put up, time will tell how Gator Nation judges the second title winning Gator quarterback.
As a freshman, Leak played in a turbulent time for Gator football. By the time Leak was a senior he was somewhat overshadowed by his backup, Tim Tebow. It is time that Leak be given his due for helping hold together a Florida football program between the great Spurrier and Meyer Eras.

Never mind possibly being the most underrated Gator quarterback ever, Leak may be the most underrated player in NCAA athletic history.  For four years (2003-2006) and three offensive coordinators, Chris Leak was the constant; he went 35-12 as a starter.  Leak went 12-9 against ranked opponents, 2-2 in bowl games and 23-9 against the SEC.  He also went 8-3 in his career against Florida archrivals Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State.  That 8-3 is comparable to the Gators 10-3-1 record against those same rivals during Wuerffel’s playing days. Tim Tebow’s record as a starter against those same three is an enviable 8-1.  In the collective mind of the Gator Nation, there is a ranking in the Gator quarterback galaxy that probably goes Tebow and Wuerffel tied at one; Grossman is in the conversation at two; but Leak should be no lower than top four.

Leak started his career in Gainesville as the crown jewel of Ron Zook’s 2002 recruiting class (3rd best QB in the 2003 class). Leak was immediately thrown into the fire, playing the second half of the then #17 Gators miserable 38-33 loss to then #9 Miami.  It especially stuck in the craw of Gator fans because the Hurricanes were led by Brock Berlin, a former Florida quarterback.  Squandering big leads (the Gators led 33-10 in the third) would be a trademark of that Zook era, and Leak was in some people’s minds, guilty by association.  That 2003 team went 8-5, just as they did in 2002.

The 2003 Gators started Ingle Martin in August, but Leak was clearly the guy by midseason 2003.  The freshman struggled at times, throwing three interceptions in his second start against Ole Miss.  He had barely beat Kentucky the week before, whom the Gators hadn’t lost to since the Reagan presidency.  In retrospect, the offense may have lacked the dynamic playmakers as in previous years.  Leak didn’t have the benefit of sitting and learning like Tebow as he played significant minutes from day one.  Only one offensive player on that 2003 Gators team totaled 600 rushing or receiving, and it was the tight end Ben Troupe.  But those are excuses; and I’m making them to make an argument.  It’s doubtful if Leak would make excuses.

It wasn’t all bad; that 2003 team that Leak led beat #6 LSU, #11 Arkansas and #4 Georgia three weeks in a row all away from the Swamp.  Leak averaged 244.3 yards in those games to go with 4 touchdowns and only one interception; but consider Gator fans slightly spoiled.  Florida quarterbacks are supposed to throw 300 yards with 5 touchdowns every game with ease; that was the standard that was set.  The Florida Gators are known as an aerial juggernaut that will sling the ball all over the yard; it’s what we love about them.  It’s the same reason we fidget when we see that no wideout in 2012 had anywhere near 50 catches.

Had Leak started out on fire, it may have changed the tone for how he was perceived during his Gator career.  Even the most critical Gator fan would admit that Leak’s career was good in spots and lackluster in others.  But make no mistake, SEC wins will make even the most zealous stat-crunching Gator fans forget a lack of gaudy passing statistics.  And in beating the eventual national champions in Baton Rouge—well, Florida had found their quarterback; his spiral was a thing of beauty. Leak’s spirals didn’t always equate to wins however as Zook’s teams (while he himself was an excellent recruiter of talent) were characterized by leaks in the defense and bad play against teams from Mississippi.  The Zook-era Gators lost more games at the Swamp in three years than in the entire Spurrier era. That, and a 38-31 loss in Starkville to a team who lost at home to Division I-AA Maine, sealed Zook’s fate.

But Chris Leak had an impressive statistical resume by the end of 2004, despite the struggles and losses.  In 2004 he tossed 29 touchdowns against 12 picks for 3,197 yards as a sophomore.  The Gators lost a controversial game at Rocky Top and let LSU get some payback as well, losing to the Tigers by three at home.  Leak played well in a loss against the Bulldogs and then couldn’t get into a rhythm against Miami in the Peach Bowl. Both games hurt the Florida faithful psyche; 7-5 got Zook fired, although Charlie Strong took the “L” in the season finale.
However boring Leak may have been when it came to playing the position of quarterback, Christopher Leak was a passer, pure and simple.  His trademark was accuracy, and an excellent arm throwing on the run.  He didn’t have the cannon that Tebow had, but his accuracy allowed him to adapt to very different offenses year-in and year-out.  Never was this more apparent than when new coach Urban Meyer brought his spread option offense to Gainesville.

In comes Urban Meyer from Utah.  His spread option tricked a lot of NFL types that picked or wanted to draft Alex Smith first in the 2005 draft; to say much was expected from the coach would be an understatement. The offense was under a microscope, but folks tend to forget Meyer’s biggest initial impact was on the defense; the Gators had allowed 345.6 ypg in 2004; the defense surrendered an average of 299.8 in 2005.  The offense would slog through; Leak hesitated at times with reads and wasn’t the running threat that Meyer’s offense typically needed.  It took Leak a whole season to acclimate to the offense and there were huge hiccups in 2005; including a 16 for 37 for 187 yards and two picks against Alabama and an 11-30 for 107 yards against LSU in a 21-17 loss.

By 2006, Tebowmania had taken over campus.  Tebow was the dual-threat weapon that could make you look foolish trying to tackle, and a rumbling style that endeared him to loss-weary fans. The highly touted Tebow from Ponte Vedra Beach chose to remain in-state, choosing the Gators over Alabama.  Gator fans would see him primarily in goalline packages and other similar situations, as Meyer left the throwing to Leak.  The tandem worked well together, and the Gators were moving on all cylinders.  Percy Harvin had a lot to do with that as well as a defense full of guys that would go on to play at the next level.  The team had a slip up on the Plains at Auburn, but blocked a bunch of kicks against South Carolina and let destiny took over from there.  They never looked back from that point. Leak ended it all with a mistake-free performance against Ohio State of 25 for 36 for 213 yards topped off with a sweet scoring pass to Dallas Baker, the touchdown maker.  It symbolized the best of Leak’s career; efficient, accurate, and poised.

Why didn’t Leak obtain the admiration and respect that his other peers, Tim Tebow, Danny Wuerffel, heck, even Rex Grossman enjoyed? Leak’s leadership style was quiet and didn’t have the off-campus notoriety of some other Gator quarterbacks. You weren’t going to see him at an Estates pool party (although back then it was the Exchange). I mean even Tebow allegedly made cameos at those.  He never posted the gaudy passing numbers of Wuerffel, and although an underrated runner, Leak or any other quarterback for that matter, didn’t record off-the-chart rushing totals like Timothy Tebow. Leak didn’t have a schtick that made him memorable. Sure Leak wasn’t homegrown, but neither was Grossman.

Leak probably didn’t draw attention to himself because he was raised to let his play speak for itself, which is something any Gator fan can appreciate.  There was a quiet confidence to him that made him respected in the locker room.  If Leak was three inches taller (stood at 5’11”) he probably would have played much longer at the next level. I think as time moves on and we examine more game footage, Gators as a fanbase will hold Leak in a higher regard than we do currently.  In effect, Leak was a vital bridge between the Run N’ Gun Spurrier Era and the brief but brilliant Meyer Era.  As the dust settles, and as us slightly older Gator fans age, he will be savored perhaps just a bit more.