When you bring up a position with a severe lack of depth, most Gator fans will point to the cornerback position, but all one has to do is take a closer look at the depth chart behind the quarterbacks to see how truly thin it is with just Chris Leak and Tim Tebow as the only bona fide quarterbacks.
One cheap shot from a defensive end and the Gators have a major headache for the rest of the football season. Even so, Leak and Tebow’s combined talents can take the Gators a very long way in 2006.
Big Year Expected out of Leak
It all starts with Leak, the one time high school phenom that has earned a great deal of respect from some and not from others.
The pedestal is so high at Florida that a quarterback isn’t allowed to be “just good” anymore. No matter that Leak may have had three different offensive coordinators in his first three years on campus. No matter that he is about to break almost every career record the University and the SEC has. Three good solid years that translate into a great career for the quarterback at the University of Florida and Leak still has his detractors.
Leak’s biography paints a clear picture of an excellent quarterback so far:
Played in all 37 games of his career, with 33-straight starts…Has thrown a touchdown pass in all but two of his 33 starts…Is 22-11 as a starter, including a 15-8 record in SEC games…Ranks fourth on the all-time UF lists in yards passing (8,271), completions (663) and fifth in attempts (1,023)…Joined Danny Wuerffel as the only quarterbacks in school history to beat four top-10 teams away from Gainesville (at LSU, at Florida State and vs. Georgia in Jacksonville twice)…His 45 career touchdown passes were second-most by a player in his first two seasons at UF to Rex Grossman’s 55…Six career 300-yard passing games.
With all of this and the many records he is about to break, something intangible has been missing from Leak. As the quarterback, he has to take control of the team. A senior with over 30 starts in a career has no choice but to be the guy that everyone turns to when the going gets tough. Offensive Coordinator and Quarterback Coach Dan Mullen knows what he needs from Leak.
“He has to be the take charge guy,” said Mullen. “You don’t find many teams that compete for championships that don’t have a great quarterback. That is what we need.”
Leak’s third spring was different for him. He finally looked like a guy in charge. He was in the faces of the receivers and the linemen. He was the one that knew what he was doing out there and transferred that knowledge to the others on the field. It was something he grasped on his own with some prodding by the coaches.
With Leak finally accepting the leadership mantel, Mullen said “This was the first time he walked into a spring practice and already knew the offense because it’s his second year running it. Now when he is sitting there during instillation, he has a better grasp. He can be more vocal, because he doesn’t have to worry about himself. It is completely different from this time last year. The important thing is where he has come from the Outback Bowl.”
Leak had to make adjustments in every season with the Gators. The offense in 2003 that he started under was guided by Ed Zaunbrecher. In 2004, Larry Fedora took charge and added his own tweaks. In 2005, Urban Meyer was named the new Head Coach at Florida and Leak ended up inheriting a completely different offense. In all likelihood, if Meyer was at the helm back when Leak was being recruited, the two may have never even met.
The Meyer offense requires the quarterback to make quick decisions. It requires the quarterback to be a runner at times. It requires a lot that Leak just wasn’t brought up to handle or prepared to in do in just one off-season of learning. According to Mullen, the spring really helped Leak get some of that confidence he needed in this new Gator system.
“I think his confidence in the offense is improved,” Mullen said. “His footwork, balance, and speed of his decision making and I think that just came with experience. That is what I was most happy with.”
An example of one of the things Leak improved on over the spring was his propensity to loft the ball even when a bullet pass may be called for. He had a low interception rate on the season, but a number of close interceptions were dropped and a lot of the close calls were because of passes that could have gotten to their intended target faster.
“Chris is a guy that likes to anticipate, put some touch on the ball, and let the receivers run under it,” Mullen said. “Part of the key is to know when he needs to rear back and let it rip. I think he was much more comfortable (at the end of spring) in making those decisions.”
Indeed, the Gator staff is expecting big things from Chris Leak for the 2006 season. He has the personal tools and with a healthy receiving corps, he should have other tools that could make for a very special season.
Tim Tebow Waiting in the Wings
If something were to happen to Leak, a strong armed lefty from Jacksonville will be waiting in the wings to step in and prove himself. Tim Tebow came to Florida this off-season as highly publicized as any recruit in recent memory.
He was an All-American from every publication imaginable. He also was a record breaker himself in high school where he set the Florida state record with 4,286 yard passing his junior year. He was the team captain and helped his team to its first ever state championship in 2005. He set the all-time career passing records in the state of Florida for passing yards (9,940) and touchdowns (149) and total offense (12,960 yards) among various other state records…As a senior he rushed for 1,150 yards and 20 touchdowns and threw for 3,334 yards and 31 touchdowns with only four interceptions.
Unlike Leak, Tebow is the perfect prototypical quarterback for Meyer’s offense. He’s already used to doing a lot of running and throwing on the run. Still, the system is a lot to learn for someone who was playing in high school stadiums just nine months ago.
“There is just so much,” Mullen said about his prized pupil. “He started by not knowing the offense at all although there is a little carryover from the stuff he did in high school. But from calling the play, calling the cadence, calling the formations, timing it up, reading the defenses—all of that stuff happens so fast.”
Lucky for the Gators, Tebow took the initiative to enroll into college early and by participating in the spring, he learned a lot about the offense and also gave the coaches an opportunity to gauge just where his learning curve is.
“He improved on every part of his game over the spring,” Mullen said. “He made drastic improvements every day. I just hope he keeps improving at that level.”
The Gators have two dynamic players at the quarterback position – they have an “Old Guard” in Leak who hopes to lead the team to the next level in the Meyer era and in Tebow they have a protégé who will learn the ropes and take over when it’s his time. Either way, while lacking in numbers, the Gators are not lacking in quality at the quarterback position for the 2006 football season.