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Leak's rapid rise continues at UF; which freshmen will shine in '04?

Posted: Friday August 6, 2004 12:40PM; Updated: Friday August 6, 2004 1:41PM
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Chris Leak
Chris Leak passed for 2,435 yards as a Gator freshman.
Bill Frakes/SI
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A couple of weeks ago, an SI photographer and I spent the afternoon with Florida quarterback Chris Leak for an upcoming "day-in-the-life" story for SI on Campus. We walked with Leak to his summer-school sociology lecture, watched him fix lunch with roommate and receiver Chad Jackson in their shared dorm-room kitchen, and watched Leak watch himself on one of a dozen videotapes from the 2003 season that were stacked neatly beside his television.

We then arranged to meet Leak early the following morning at Florida's weight room, where team members arrive in self-assigned shifts throughout the day for their thrice-weekly workout with strength coach Rob Glass.

"Are you sure that you're going to make that early shift tomorrow?" I asked him dubiously. It was, after all, the heart of the summer, the one time of year in which players don't have to worry about strict schedules, much less pesky journalists.

"Sure, whatever," said Leak, in his quiet, cool way. Coming from many college football players, this is code-speak for: "Maybe I'll meet you. Probably not."

As Gainesville was waking up that next morning, a group of about 20 Gator early-birds drifted into the weight room and, at the barked instructions of their strength coach, started rotating through a series of squats with a row of barbells along one mirrored wall. Looking around at all of the sweaty, sleepy-eyed Gators, I didn't see our story subject.

"I guess he didn't show," I said to Florida sports information assistant Zack Higbee, who was also hanging around the weight room that morning.

Higbee snorted. "Are you kidding?" he pointed over to a lifting station where Leak, who at just 6-feet is often lost amid a huddle or line of teammates, was staring intensely at the barbell as if it were LSU's Cover 2 defense. "We're talking about a kid who is pretty much the first one at workouts and the last to leave. Wouldn't matter whether you were interviewing him for a story or not."

It is a reasonable statement. Anyone who has followed Leak's comet-like college career, which rounded the one-year mark this summer, should know there is little reason to doubt that the young quarterback will do just what he's says.

Our first clue came early, when Leak, in explaining why he had just signed with Florida, said that he wanted to play right away and that the Gators provided the best opportunity. The statement was a little audacious, even when declared by the nation's top-rated high school quarterback in his usual, Sunday-best manner. But not six months later, play right away he did, starting with a 31-yard completion to then-fellow-freshman Andre Caldwell in the third series of the Gators' season-opening victory over San Jose State.

Less than a month after that game, he racked up 268 passing yards in a come-from-behind win over Kentucky, shattering the passing record for Florida true freshmen in their first starts. By January, Leak surpassed school freshman marks in passing yardage (2,435) and touchdowns (16). Had he, like a decade of predecessors, been given the chance to operate in the yard-gulping Fun 'n' Gun offense of Steve Spurrier rather than the short-pass-oriented system favored by last season's offensive coordinator, Ed Zaunbrecher (who has since been supplanted by former running backs coach Larry Fedora), one can only imagine how much bigger those numbers would have been.

Of course, there were some bumps in the road, including a three-interception fourth quarter in a loss to Ole Miss. This offseason, Leak has chosen to focus on those bumps rather than the triumphs. He put on a visible amount of muscle in an effort to improve his arm strength and durability, and earned the Gator Performance Award this spring for his strides. He frequently corralled his receivers, a young group that lost its three top performers from last year, for practice outside of team-wide voluntary workouts. And then there was his film study. Every other day for at least an hour, Leak planted himself in front of one of the tapes that he had requested from the Gators' video department, and determined where and when he needed to be sharper and smarter. The proof of these efforts, Jackson said, is in his passing.

"He's more accurate," said the wideout, while having a catch with Leak in the empty parking lot outside of their dorm during my visit.

Added center Mike Degory during SEC media days, "He's more polished. It's like he's shined up now. Watching him during the spring ... he does some things that are amazing for a sophomore."

And, feat of all feats -- it seems that Leak is becoming a little more comfortable with his very public persona as well. In an article I had written about Leak last fall, I made much of his reputation for being robotic, not only in the two-minute offense but in interviews as well.

During my visit in July, he talked freely about his disinterest in the level of partying that has gotten a few teammates in trouble as of late ("I've always been a homebody"); his tireless film study ("It's actually fun for me -- I've been doing it since Youth League"); and his relationship with older brother, C.J., who will quarterback the Tennessee team that Florida plays on Sept. 18 ("We're best friends, but we've been competitive since we could walk"). He even joked around a bit -- until he was asked whether Florida could improve on back-to-back 8-5 seasons.

"My timing is better, and as a team, were more experienced," said Leak, his expression settling into the game face that has defined him. "So, most definitely."

Like Leak, circa 2003, several true freshmen who are attending their first college practices this week have a good chance of making an impact. Here are a few first-year guys who will be facing heavy-duty expectations this September:

Jeff Byers
Jeff Byers was the top OL prospect in the Class of '04.
Courtesy of Al Byers

Jeff Byers, OL, USC, 6-4, 280 pounds: It is a rare true freshman who has the size and smarts to handle O-line duty, but Byers has the potential to enter the Trojans' rotation at center. Gatorade's national player of the year in 2003, Byers was estimated to have made pancake blocks on one-quarter of his team's running plays for state champion Loveland (Colo.) High during his senior season. He is just one of several extraordinarily talented first-year players, including 6-4 Mike Williams-doppelganger Fred Davis, who could see major minutes for USC.

Ted Ginn, DB, Ohio State, 6-0, 170: An Ohio state-record 102-yard touchdown interception figured among the eight picks that Ginn had for Glenville High last year. With the departure of several key defensive players, including All-America cornerback Chris Gamble, Ginn will have ample opportunity to prove his playmaking skills right away.

Brian Brohm
Brian Brohm is continuing his family's Cardinal tradition.

Brian Brohm, QB, Louisville, 6-3, 200: Cardinals senior Stefan LeFors definitely will be the starter, but Brohm could prove to be a more-than-capable counterpunch. A Louisville legacy (father Oscar and brother Jeff were also QBs), Brohm threw for an astounding 10,579 yards and 119 TDs at Trinity (Ky.) High.

Xavier Carter (6-3, 190) and Early Doucet (6-1, 207), WRs, LSU: Carter, from Melbourne, Fla., is lightning quick and shifty. Doucet, from St. Martinville, La., has the strength and versatility to play almost anywhere on the field. Both will get a chance to rotate into a Tigers receiving corps that was star-depleted by graduation and the NFL Draft. Fellow frosh receiver Lavelle Hawkins (Stockton, Calif.) should see plenty of playing time as well.

Adrian Peterson, RB, Oklahoma, 6-2, 210: The consensus No. 1 prospect in 2004 rushed for 2,960 yards on 252 attempts (yes, that's 11.7 yards per carry) as a senior at Palestine (Texas) High. He already has impressed his teammates in voluntary summer workouts, and will push Kejuan Jones for the starting job this month.

Sports Illustrated writer-reporter Kelley King covers college football for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.