Four years ago, amid more hype than you could imagine, Chris Leak committed to play football for the Florida Gators. He had plenty of suitors — name the big time program and they offered him a scholarship — but he thought Florida was the place he could come win a national championship. His commitment opened the floodgates for the Gators to sign the number one recruiting class in the nation.
Leak was the can’t miss kid of 2003, the once in a blue moon quarterback that could throw the tightest spiral anyone had ever seen. At Independence High School in Charlotte he set passing records that will probably never be broken in the state of North Carolina while winning four state championships without ever losing a game. All the experts that saw him in high school figured he was so good he would win at least one or two national championships at Florida, particularly with the kind of talent the Gators assembled to play with him.
So here we are four years later and the idea of winning a national championship has hit a few pot holes and speed bumps along the way. There is a chance that Leak and the fourth-ranked Gators (11-1) could make the national championship game in Glendale, Arizona but they’ll need some help to get there. A lot of things have to happen for the Gators to get a shot at Ohio State and most of them are out of Florida’s control. The only thing the Gators do control is what happens Saturday when they face eighth-ranked Arkansas (10-2) in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game at the Georgia Dome (6 p.m., CBS TV).
The national championship hopes are on the back burner this week. Florida’s first task is to find a way to beat an Arkansas team that is the surprise of the Southeastern Conference. Nobody expected the Razorbacks to be in this position, particularly after they opened the season by losing to Southern Cal, 50-14. They are here on the strength of the league’s best running game led by the nation’s top 1-2 punch at tailback, Darren McFadden and Felix Jones.
Leak will shoulder the burden of beating this Arkansas team. He’s the four-year starter at quarterback and the unquestioned leader of the Gators so he’s accustomed to carrying heavy burdens. He’s done it his entire career, starting as a freshman when he led the Gators to an improbable three-game winning streak against the Bermuda Triangle of eventual champion LSU, then eleventh-ranked Arkansas and fourth-ranked Georgia. The poise he showed in those three games only fueled the expectations that he would lead Florida back to the Promised Land.
Along this path of broken dreams and unfulfilled expectations, Leak has endured a head coaching change (Zook fired after the 2004 season, replaced by Urban Meyer), three offensive coordinators (Ed Zaunbrecher his freshman year, Larry Fedora his sophomore year, and Dan Mullen the last two years under Meyer), and radical changes in offensive philosophy. The changes were subtle from Zaunbrecher to Fedora and mostly involved a more aggressive approach to pretty much the same plays. The change from Fedora to Mullen was far more radical and it’s only now, twelve games into year two that we’re really seeing a real comfort level.
Leak was probably played the best game he’s played in the Meyer era against Florida State this past Saturday. He was 21-34 passing for 283 yards and two touchdowns without an interception against the nation’s twelfth-ranked defense. Most importantly, he was the leader on the field that got the job done when things got tight in the fourth quarter.
Once Florida State tied the game at 14-14, Leak took the Gators by the reins and led them on a 10-play, 74-yard scoring drive. He hit seven of his eight passes including a 25-yard thread-the-needle throw to Dallas Baker to convert one third down and a 10-yarder to Cornelius Ingram for another critical third down conversion. The capper was a 25-yard laser beam to Baker in the northeast corner of the end zone for the game-winner.
There was a game-winning drive because Chris Leak did something he would have never considered doing a year ago. He came up to Meyer on the sideline and told the coach to abandon the run, that he could slice and dice the FSU secondary if the wraps were taken off him. Meyer agreed and Leak delivered fearlessly as he became one of only two Florida quarterbacks in school history to win three games in a row against FSU.
“Part of playing quarterback is improving the level of play of the other ten guys around you,” said Meyer at his Monday media gathering. “It’s also having communication with your coaching staff, giving recommendations, and that was non-existent a year ago. Come over to the sideline and everybody would sit there and look at each other. There was no discussion. Chris has done a great job that was his best job as far as discussion, recommendations, and then more importantly than all that execution.”
Getting Leak to open up that way has been a Meyer project that has often been frustrating. Meyer has always admired the way Leak throws the football and he loves the way his quarterback does all the right things. Leak has never once been a problem child. He’s gone about his business with an almost professional air, never complaining and always being the good company man.
All those things were well and good, but Meyer needed more. Meyer needed Chris Leak to become the vocal, emotional leader of his team. Meyer needed Chris Leak to be the leader in both word and deed.
Meyer says that as a leader, Leak is now “off the charts.” A year ago?
“I can’t tell you how far he [Leak] has come,” said Meyer. “I never forget this one time I invited Chris over to my house and we sat there. He got there at about three and I think he left at 10:30. Not a whole lot of conversation being had there. We sat there and watched the game and I looked at Chris and I looked at my wife and said ‘what’s going on here? Not much happening.’”
Now Leak is a vocal leader and that has made him more of a leader on the field, too.
“The best thing Chris has got going for him is I think he is improving the play of everybody around him,” said Meyer. “I don’t think I know. I see that. I saw that on the field and I saw that in the huddle. He is taking command. He is a quarterback. I am very proud of the way he has progressed.”
Leak sees how things have changed since that freshman year. In so many ways, he’s still the same Leak that arrived on campus in that summer of 2003. He’s still ever so polite and he still answers every question, same as he always has, and he still throws that same picture perfect pass. But there is more responsibility now. The expectations of winning a championship are still the same, but there is more on the field responsibility about play calling and making the right decisions.
“I think about a lot more now than I did my freshman year,” Leak said. “I have to think about play calls, what I’m expecting from the defense and anything else that is going to happen on the play. As a freshman you are just worried about making sure you are doing everything right on that specific play. Now I am a senior and I have so many other things I can use to my advantage because of more experience.”
His experience is proven out by the numbers:
— 1,392 pass attempts, best in Florida history. — 854 completions, also best in Florida history — 10,811 passing yards, second in Florida history and just 74 behind Danny Wuerffel. — 86 touchdown passes, second only to Wuerffel’s 114. — 32 200-yard passing games, best in Florida history. — 10,952 yards of total offense, best in Florida history. — 33 wins as a starting quarterback, tops among SEC quarterbacks. — 26 career touchdown passes against teams ranked in the top 25 since 2003, best in the nation. — 354 career pass completions against teams ranked in the top 25 since 2003, best in the nation. — 4,148 career passing yards against teams ranked in the top 25 since 2003, best in the nation.
The numbers are plenty good, but Leak will trade all the numbers for the only one that really matters Saturday and that’s a win over Arkansas. If he gets that win, he gets the championship that some say he needs to validate his career.
“That’s why you come to Florida, to play for an SEC title,” Leak said. “That’s what we have expected out of ourselves. It makes you proud that you have an opportunity to go up there and have a chance at a championship.”
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Meyer’s greatest concern for the Arkansas game is the offensive line. His troops are banged up pretty badly and there is no depth. Drew Miller and Jim Tartt both have sprained ankles but both will be playing. Everybody on the line has his share of bumps and bruises but there is no time to rest up.
“[Depth on the offensive line] it’s killing us,” said Meyer. “The best motivating factor you have is if you’re not playing well you say come on, you get in here and play,” said Meyer.
But there is no depth to speak of. Ronnie Wilson spells Tartt and Miller at guard and he’s also the backup center to Steve Rissler. Tackles Carlton Medder and Phil Trautwein pretty much have to go the entire game without a break.
The Gators thought they were going to have some backup from a pair of talented freshmen but Marcus Gilbert looks like he will have to have surgery on his ailing elbow and Maurice Hurt still hasn’t gotten all the way back from arthroscopic knee surgery.
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Senior tailback DeShawn Wynn, Florida’s leading rusher with 632 yards, is questionable for the game with a shoulder stinger. Wynn did practice Monday.
Freshman Percy Harvin was held out of practice Monday but he is expected to be back at full speed Tuesday.
Linebackers Brandon Siler (knee) and Earl Everett (ankle) both will play but they are still slowed by their injuries.