Just chalk up the 2005 football season as a learning experience both for quarterback Chris Leak and Dan Mullen, his position coach and Florida’s offensive coordinator. It was their first year working together and Mullen was Leak’s third coordinator in three years so it took awhile to get the two on the same page with any kind of consistency.
There were times in 2005 when Leak looked lost in Coach Urban Meyer’s spread option offense. Leak spent his first two years at Florida as a pure pocket passer that ran only out of sheer necessity. In the new offense, there were plenty more responsibilities, one of which was running by design and not in feet don’t fail me now situations.
It took some tweaking but by the Florida State game (34-7 blowout win for the Gators) and the Outback Bowl victory over Iowa, Leak finally looked comfortable. The momentum of those two wins carried over into the spring where more tweaking was done to adapt the offense to Leak’s particular talents. One of the subtle changes was moving the pocket, allowing Leak to get outside the tackles and throw on the run.
“Chris is really comfortable with what we’re doing now,” said Mullen after Tuesday’s practice. “I’ve never had a quarterback in our system that was really good throwing on the move and Chris is really efficient when he is out there on the move, breaking contain and getting on the edge. We had to tweak some things so that happens now and that’s what it’s designed for because he’s really good on the move. That’s why we’re adjusting to play to his strengths.”
By getting Leak outside the tackles, it creates better throwing lanes. Leak is only 6-0 tall so it isn’t always easy staying in the pocket and seeing things when the offensive linemen in front of him are mostly 6-5 or taller.
“I think it’s going to be really good for him just to be able to see better,” said Mullen. “We’re going to get him out of the pocket so he won’t be stuck in there with all the trees, trying to make throws at different angles and finding openings just to get the ball off.”
Another advantage of the moving pocket is that it will let Leak see how the field opens up in front of him. Quite often in 2005, Leak appeared reluctant to run and that might have been because he couldn’t see how things were opening up past the line of scrimmage. Since he will already be on the move and outside the tackles, Mullen is hoping that he will be encouraged to take positive yards when there isn’t an open receiver. While Leak may never be an extraordinary or elusive runner, if he can take the positive yards when they’re available, it will vastly improve the Florida offense.
“We think he’ll be able to make better decisions on the move,” said Mullen. “We look for a lot of positive things from Chris this year.”
Mullen believes the 2006 offense will be much improved thanks largely to a more confident Leak, now certain of what’s asked of him and confident that he can deliver the goods. Where Mullen believes fans will see the most improvement is in the decision making arena. Often during 2005, Leak seemed to have trouble making quick decisions and that had a hand in the Gators giving up an unacceptable 35 sacks.
“Quick decisions by quarterbacks come from comfort in the system,” said Mullen. “You watch him practice now and boy, he’s not holding the ball much. That’s because he’s real comfortable with it and he knows exactly where to go so the ball’s quick out of his hands. That’s going to be a real change that you’ll see.”
Mullen said that Leak also rededicated himself to working on his fundamentals and that’s another area of big improvement.
“I think he’s so much improved this year than where he was last year,” said Mullen. “I think he’s very confident in his abilities but I also think he’s worked really hard on his fundamentals between last year this time and this year. He’s really comfortable with what he’s doing on the field. He’s not thinking about what he’s supposed to do. He knows what to do and now he’s looking to make plays.”
Behind Leak is freshman Tim Tebow, an eager learner that picks things up fast. Leak is the patient teacher and Tebow seems to have the perfect aptitude for the position.
“It’s Chris’ job to teach Tim how to be a college quarterback,” said Mullen. “It’s on Chris as a senior to show Tim how to play, how to prepare and how to practice. I don’t know if Chris had anyone to do that when he was a freshman.”
DOMINATING DEFENSIVE LINE: Coach Urban Meyer was pleased with the way his defensive line performed Tuesday. The d-line is ranked as one of the best in the nation in most preseason magazines. Their performance had a great deal to do with the Gators finishing 2005 ranked ninth nationally in total defense.
“Our offensive line couldn’t handle them,” said Meyer. “It looked like the defensive line had their way a little bit today.”
The line looks to have a very solid eight-man rotation led by senior nose tackle Marcus Thomas, who is in the best physical condition of his career. This is also the first time Thomas has entered August practices healthy since he’s been at Florida.
“Marcus Thomas never had an offseason,” said Meyer. “Offseason is spent to get in shape and get strong and he’s always been rehabbing. For three years I guess that’s what he’s been doing and you watch his technique over the last year and a half and he’s a much different player. He’s always been a good player but now a much different technical player.”
Marcus Thomas and Joe Cohen
Another defensive tackle that looks to be in the best shape of his career is Joe Cohen. This is the first August he’s playing the same position he played the previous year. Last year he was rehabbing from surgery on his hip. This year he’s healthy and looking like he’s ready to live up to the hype that accompanied him on signing day three years ago.
Ray McDonald has been held out of contact so far and Meyer says the staff will be careful getting him ready for the season. He’s coming off two ACL surgeries but he looks bigger and stronger than ever before. Clint McMillan continues to play hard and look like he will be a real factor in the rotation. Last year’s starter opposite Thomas, Steven Harris, had a couple of big time plays during Tuesday’s practice. He’s still waiting full reinstatement to the team but that could come any day now.
At the defensive ends, Jarvis Moss has the look of a potential star. He’s been too quick for any tackle the Gators have put up against him. Derrick Harvey and Daryl Gresham have both looked solid at the DE position.
Meyer likes the camaraderie that has developed among his defensive linemen. The coach is big on team chemistry and he’s hoping that the chemistry that he sees with his defensive line will carry over with other groups on the team.
“Great groups have that [chemistry],” Meyer said. “I think our receivers have that a little our receivers and our defensive line have it and I think our quarterbacks Chris and Tim have that as well. There are a couple of groups that don’t have that at all and we’re trying to fix that.”
What Meyer likes about his defensive linemen is how they have each other’s backs.
“They don’t want to let each other down,” he said. “Coach Mattison’s big on that.”
WYNN OUT FOR A DAY: Tailback DeShawn Wynn was unable to practice Tuesday because he was running a temperature of 101. Meyer expects him to be back in a day or so.
“He had a 101 degree temperature but he’s fine,” said Meyer. “Someone else also had a 101 degree temperature and didn’t practice.”
TOOKES A STARTER: One of the pleasant surprises through three August practices is the play of senior Kenneth Tookes, who has all of nine catches for 84 yards in his career. He’s been getting open, making nice catches and showing speed and moves nobody knew had. Meyer is pleased with the way he’s stepped up his game.
“He’s a better player than he was a year ago,” said Meyer. “When Coach (Billy) Gonzales (wide receivers coach) got here, he had eight deficit points and all I know is nine and you’re gone, I think, and he was below a 2.0. Now he’s set to graduate in December and he’s a starter at the University of Florida so that’s a pretty good change of fortune for Kenny Tookes.”
Tookes was a heralded prep receiver when he signed with Florida out of Jacksonville First Coast. He got lost in the receiver shuffle from day one under former coach Ron Zook and never seemed to get in the mix for a starting position or even a prime backup role. Because he’s a good blocker, he saw increasing playing time last season but he still only caught seven passes all season and four of those (for 36 yards) were in one game against Vanderbilt.
“I don’t think he ever played a meaningful snap at the University of Florida and now he’s set to help us,” said Meyer.