Coed dorms. Study groups at 4 a.m. Pitching in with community projects. Weekday parties in the student center.... Today's colleges are complex, highly active petri dishes of academic and social activity.... 30.2 percent of freshmen say they are "frequently overwhelmed" by all they have to do.
—from "Life on Campus," a reading in the course First-Year Florida
Few football players of any age could have been prepared for what awaited Chris Leak in Kentucky's Commonwealth Stadium on Sept. 27. Thumping rock music competed with the din of 70,579 fans, most of whom were raring to see Florida, the SEC's public enemy No. 1, slip below .500 for the first time since 1992. As a poster-board sign in the upper deck—ZOOK SPRINGS A LEAK, CROCS GET BEACHED—indicated, the masses were hoping that the Gators' 18-year-old quarterback, in his first college start, would fall on his face.
The freshman didn't flinch. Not when he jogged onto the field to a chorus of boos. Not when he suffered his third sack, nor even when the Wildcats widened their lead to 21-3 late in the third quarter. In the game's final 15 minutes, the youngest starting quarterback in major-college football threw two touchdown passes to lead Florida to a 24-21 win, the Gators' biggest comeback ever on the road.
"A lot of freshmen come in and are just so excited that they lose focus," says Florida offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher. "For Chris, it's just not new."
Robotic. Machinelike. Automatic. These are the words teammates and reporters use to describe Leak, whose first year of college has posed challenges slightly more daunting than late-night study sessions and weekday mixers. He is methodical in everything from game preparation (he scrutinizes more film in a week than Ebert and Roeper combined) to weekly interview sessions, in which he fields reporters' questions with polite clich�s ("giving 100 percent" is a favorite) that convey not so much reticence as a disinclination to think outside the tackle box. "Chris simply does not let any outside influences affect what he does or says," says Zaunbrecher. "He has a plan, and he does not stray from it."
Gone are the days when a player's first year was devoted to developing friendships, study habits and quadriceps. As more high school programs mimic college offensive schemes and weight-training regimens, more kids are coming to campus ready to play right away. And when they go so far as to skip the prom and other high school rites of spring to enroll in college and begin practicing with the team, they are welcomed. Almost every coach in the country has responded to the NCAA's 85-scholarship limit by suiting up more freshmen—from South Carolina's Lou Holtz, who has started first-year running back Demetris Summers in seven of the Gamecocks' 10 games, to USC's Pete Carroll, whose freshman-laden two-deep chart includes quarterback John David Booty, believed to be the first high schooler to skip his senior year (he graduated early) to get a jump on Division I football.
Florida coach Ron Zook's 2003 recruiting class rivaled Carroll's as the nation's best, and those youngsters are a big reason the Gators are winning. After a slow start, Florida (7-3) heads into Saturday's game at South Carolina neck and neck with Georgia and Tennessee in the SEC East. Five true freshmen have played key roles, including linebacker Channing Crowder, who has led the team in tackles in each of the last three games; punter Eric Wilbur, who's second in the SEC with a 45.0-yard average; and the Ferrari among the fleet, Leak, the 2002 USA Today high school offensive player of the year. His 60.1% completion rate is the best among the six true freshmen who've started in Division I-A this season.
Quarterbacking is the final frontier for first-year collegians: Even Zook waited until the fifth game to give Leak his first start, ahead of sophomore Ingle Martin. The youngster has since led Florida to wins over LSU, Arkansas and Georgia, becoming the first freshman quarterback in school history to defeat three ranked opponents in consecutive games. Leak shrugs off his mounting achievements. "Everybody has to start someday," he says. "I just want to give 100 percent in every game."
To understand how this teenager came to run the Gators' offense and why he's so underwhelmed by the responsibility, you'd have to visit Leak's hometown of Charlotte. Perhaps you'd see a copy of The Charlotte Observer, in which Leak's development at Florida makes regular headlines, or turn on the radio to hear the sports talk guys breaking down Leak's latest performance. "In these parts," says Rick Emert, chairman of the North Carolina Youth Football League, "every day is Chris Leak day."
Emert inherited his NCYFL post in 1998 from the organization's founder, Curtis Leak, a former college wideout drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the 11th round in 1976. It was in the NCYFL, which has surpassed Pop Warner as the main feeder league for area high schools, that Curtis's two sons, C.J., now a senior backup at Tennessee, and Chris, developed as quarterbacks.