From a Leak To a Flood?
More blue-chippers may follow quarterback Chris Leak to Florida
One need only launch fireronzook.com (and likely be blocked by the heavy traffic to the website) to comprehend what little faith Florida fans have had in Steve Spurrier's replacement, whose 8-5 record in his inaugural season as coach was the Gators' worst finish in 13 years. Yet Ron Zook's reputation, which grazed rock bottom after a series of coaching blunders contributed to a 38-30 Outback Bowl loss to Michigan, is on the rebound. During halftime of the Jan. 5 nationally televised All-American Bowl, an all-star game for high school seniors, the country's top-rated quarterback, Chris Leak of Charlotte, announced his intention to play for Florida next fall.
Coming one day after former Heisman candidate Rex Grossman said he would skip his senior season and take his underutilized arm to the NFL, Leak's declaration prompted one Charlotte Observer columnist to write that he hoped it was a gag. Why would a kid who threw a national-record 185 touchdown passes for perennial state champ Independence High sign on with an offense that had forsaken the Fun 'n' Gun for a short-range passing attack? The cocksure Grossman, who in 2002 threw for 494 fewer yards than he had the year before under Spurrier, seemed confounded by the complex spread patterns installed by offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher.
Although the 6'1", 210-pound Leak says he would have liked to have been Grossman's understudy for a season, he was ultimately sold by Zook's assurance that he will compete for the starting job. (Leak had asked his final three choices—Florida, Florida State and Iowa—to FedEx him memos detailing how they planned to use him.) Because the Gators' attack "is a lot like Independence's in that you mix a lot of short throws with passes all over the field," says Leak, "the Florida coaches think that I'm ready."
This opportunity was especially appealing to Chris's father, Curtis, who feels that his oldest son, C.J., a junior backup quarterback at Tennessee, wasn't given a fair shot at the Vols' starting job. "The clincher was when Zook told us the day before the All-American game that Chris would compete with [redshirt freshman] Gavin Dickey right off the bat," says Independence coach Tom Knotts. "A lot of coaches made offers, but Ron has earned Curtis's trust."
First-time head coach Zook has struggled at times on the sideline; in the Outback Bowl he went for a two-point conversion in the second quarter but settled for a one-point kick at a more crucial point in the game, and on the final drive he okayed a trick play that backfired, killing the Gators' last chance. But his success on the recruiting trail should keep Florida in the SEC title hunt. Already the Gators' 2003 recruiting class has the potential to be one of the best in a decade. "[Zook's] excitement about Florida made me excited," says Leak, who spent time over the past two weeks doing some telephone recruiting of his own. (He notes that Andre Caldwell, a prized receiver out of Tampa, recently scheduled an official visit to Gainesville, and Jayson Swain, a Huntsville, Ala., wideout who committed earlier to Tennessee, could follow.)
Says recruiting expert Tom Lemming, "Don't be surprised if Chris Leak is the Pied Piper who brings top players back to Florida."