A lot to Leak
He has yet to take a snap, but hype is building for Gators' freshman QB
Posted: Thursday August 21, 2003 9:35PM
The legend began in the eighth grade when Wake Forest offered him his first college scholarship, and continued through four years of state titles and shattered passing records. When he announced his college choice last January, it was nationally televised, and when he participated in his first college practice earlier this month it garnered front-page coverage.
To this point, his story is no different from that of countless other quarterback prodigies to come through the ranks, few of whom ever truly shed the burden of their lofty billing. After all, for every Peyton Manning, there is a Drew Henson, for every Carson Palmer a Ronald Curry.
In the days and weeks to come, though, the legend of Chris Leak will begin charting its own course, and already there are indications it could be unique.
Like how he began breaking down tape of the Gators' offense the day after he officially signed last February.
How, as a high school senior last spring, he saved up his money for a trip to Florida, not for spring break but to attend the Gators' spring practices, where he'd stand behind the end zone watching the plays unfold, then retreat to the football complex for hours of film study.
How he reportedly told teammates he won't allow himself a girlfriend until he delivers Florida a national title.
How on Aug. 13 in his first college scrimmage, with the backdrop of a four-way quarterback competition serving as pressure, he went out and completed 12 of 14 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns.
"Everything everybody says about him -- the hype -- it's true," said senior receiver Carlos Perez. "I haven't seen anyone coming in out of high school like him, and I came in with [1999 high school player of the year] Brock Berlin."
Florida coach Ron Zook, at least publicly, has yet to declare a pecking order for his quarterbacks, saying only that fellow freshman Justin Midgett is slightly behind Leak, sophomore Ingle Martin and redshirt freshman Gavin Dickey. But regular practice observers say they'd be shocked if Leak isn't handed the keys to the castle sometime early in the season.
It's not just his pretty throws that draw "oohs" and "ahhs" from onlookers. It's his poised, almost robotic demeanor. He quietly and mechanically goes about his business, his facial expression rarely changing. They say that in his two months on campus, you can count on one hand the number of times he's picked the wrong receiver.
"For a true freshman, he's way ahead of the normal curve," said Florida offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Ed Zaunbrecher. "When I call a play, he knows where people are supposed to be. If a guy breaks the wrong way, he usually can tell you exactly what happened."
"Watching him throw and seeing how focused he was, it was a pretty amazing thing," said offensive lineman Shannon Snell. "He's mature beyond his years. I didn't expect him to come in here and compete, and now he's in the mix."
Leak is more than in the mix. He is the player who will ultimately define Zook's tenure at Florida.
An unpopular hire to begin with, Zook did little to win over the Steve Spurrier-deprived faithful with an 8-5 debut season. Their beacon for this and the next four years is Leak, the 2002 USA Today offensive player of the year, who threw for 15,593 yards and a national-record 185 touchdowns while leading Charlotte's Independence High to three state titles and 46 straight wins.
But while Leak clearly is the future, Zook is treading a fine line when it comes to the present. An entire state is clamoring to see the freshman, no matter whom Zook chooses to start the opener. At the same time, he wants to avoid the perception of preferential treatment. And nothing can be more destructive to a quarterback's development than throwing him into the fire too soon (some say that's what happened to Leak's highly touted older brother C.J., who played right away at Wake Forest but is now third string at Tennessee).
While Leak to this point appears largely unshakable, there's no way to predict how he might react, say, under the lights at a packed Orange Bowl on Sept. 6.
"I don't see him being a guy who has a lot of emotional ups and downs," said Zaunbrecher. "Because of his high school success, he was in the public eye a lot, it's not something that fazes him. He's just quiet, just concentrates on doing his work, not worrying about all the other things."
The worrying falls to Zook, perhaps the one person in Gainesville not getting caught up in Leak fever (besides perhaps Leak himself, who, like the other freshmen, is barred from speaking to the media in the preseason). There's no manual on how to handle blue-chip quarterbacks. And there's no tempering the expectation level that accompanies them.
"I don't know what everyone's expectations are," said Zaunbrecher. "If they think he's going to throw a touchdown every pass, that's not likely. But is he going to be a guy who's a very successful player? Yes, he will be. Health and progress will determine exactly how far that goes."
Have arm, will throw
When Brian St. Pierre graduated after last season, it was assumed that Boston College's quarterback job would fall to former SuperPrep All-American Quinton Porter. But that was before last Saturday when Paul Peterson, a transfer from Snow (Utah) Junior College who coach Tom O'Brien had signed mainly as insurance, completed 20 of 26 passes for 236 yards in a scrimmage.
Peterson is a 23-year-old Mormon whose only suitors coming out of high school were Division II and III schools. He served a two-year mission in Nicaragua before walking on at Snow -- former home of Oklahoma star Josh Heupel, among others -- where, despite throwing for 5,500 yards and 55 touchdowns, he found himself overlooked once again. Logical destination BYU, where brother Charlie started four games in 2000, didn't have room for him.
So, Peterson did some research -- and some video editing.
"I made a highlight tape and sent it to about 20-30 schools," said Peterson, who has yet to find out whether he'll be named a starter. "I looked to see which senior quarterbacks were leaving, obviously if they had a good passing game. BC was the first to reply, a week after I sent it."
Peterson said his biggest obstacle in recruiting has been convincing schools to overlook his height, listed at 5-11. What better place than Doug Flutie's alma mater?
Illinois coach Ron Turner is using several newcomers to replenish the nation's 10th-ranked offense from last season (446.3 yards per game), which returns quarterback Jon Beutjer (2,511 yards, 21 TDs, 11 INTs) but lost its leading rusher and top four receivers.
It took just one week of fall practices for receivers Kelvin Hayden, last year's National Junior College Athletic Association offensive player of the year, and Lonnie Hurst, a true freshman, to earn starting spots at split end and flanker, respectively. In a recent scrimmage, Hayden, a 6-foot, 200-pound Chicago native who originally signed with Illinois out of high school, caught four passes for 112 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown. Hurst, 6-3, 192 from Detroit, hauled in 16- and 26-yard completions to set up a score.
And in the bid to replace tailback Antoineo Harris, who finished as the school's No. 2 all-time rusher, three highly regarded freshmen, E.B. Halsey, Marcus Mason and Pierre Thomas, are pushing junior Morris Virgil. While Virgil and Halsey are 1-2, Mason ran for 106 yards on nine carries in the aforementioned scrimmage and Thomas ran eight times for 60.
Turner hopes to play all four in the Aug. 30 opener against Missouri. School officials believe no Illinois true freshman has started a season opener at running back or receiver in more than 60 years.
Deposed Washington coach Rick Neuheisel has a new gig: volunteer quarterbacks coach at Seattle's Rainier Beach High School, a local powerhouse. "I was frustrated not having anything to do," Neuheisel told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "I talked to my wife and said, 'I want to coach.' And she said, 'Call a high school.'" ... UCLA coach Karl Dorrell may employ a two-quarterback system to get both Drew Olson and Matt Moore on the field. ... East Carolina running back Art Brown, Conference USA's leading returning rusher (102.9 yards per game), is out for the season with a knee injury. Junior Marvin Townes and juco transfer Kevin Fain are vying to replace him. ... The number of Miami players to miss practice time due to injury this preseason is up to a staggering 23, with starting guard Joe McGrath (stress fracture), tackle Vernon Carey (ankle) and linebacker Roger McIntosh (knee) among the victims. ... Georgia will be without three defensive starters for its Aug. 30 opener against Clemson: end Will Thompson (surgery for dislocated ankle, out for the season), tackle Ken Veal (sprained ankle) and safety Kentrell Curry (fractured leg). And at least eight reserve defenders are either injured or suspended for the game. ... Former Clemson quarterback Willie Simmons, who has only one year of eligibility remaining, transferred to Florida A&M last spring only to have the NCAA decree that the school, which is moving up to I-A next year, must follow I-A transfer rules requiring the player to sit out a year. Simmons is now at The Citadel but needs a waiver from the NCAA's "one-transfer rule" to play this season.
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.