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Leak's talent already visible

JOHN ROMANO
Published August 31, 2003

GAINESVILLE - There is no controversy.

Just questions.

Such as, how long before Chris Leak becomes the starting quarterback?

And is there time to finish this column before he does?

Now we know why Florida coach Ron Zook did not name a starting quarterback until the sun had risen on a new season.

It's because he has two. One for today and another for tomorrow.

For the record, it was Ingle Martin who took the first snap of 2003. And it was Leak who offered the first bit of hope for the season.

Supposedly a recruit for the ages, Leak certainly looked like the future during Saturday night's 65-3 beating of San Jose State. And he did a pretty good job of brightening the present, too.

"That was just amazing," guard Shannon Snell said of Leak's debut. "You come out with 90,000 people here, a freshman with your eyes wide open? For him to perform as well as he did under those conditions is amazing. He deserves all the hype he got coming out of high school."

Martin's starting career is a game old. And he will be back in the starting huddle next week at Miami. Probably.

That was the word Zook used. Probably Martin would start. As if Leak needed only 14 passes to get used to this NCAA thing.

You should realize Martin did nothing wrong Saturday night. He made no major blunders. He found the end zone a couple of times and avoided San Jose State cornerbacks on all of his passes.

Leak simply looks like the better quarterback.

You see it in his manner. In passes that seem to leave here and arrive there in a heartbeat.

His timing is sound, his footwork appears impeccable. It is only because of his age - he's 18 - that you worry about this Leak.

Of course, he always has been a little ahead of the curve. After going to a summer football camp at Wake Forest, he was offered a scholarship by then-Deacons coach Jim Caldwell. Leak had just finished middle school.

His father, Curtis - who had a brief stay as a receiver with the Bucs in 1976 - has groomed him well. Maybe too well, some would say. Not to question Leak's workload, but Svengali might have cut him more slack.

Leak began preparing for his major-college debut shortly after putting away his kindergarten mat. It has been a continuous cycle of workouts and long hours studying game tapes since then.

Not that anyone at UF is complaining. Leak's high school honors background and soft-spoken manner is reminiscent of Danny Wuerffel as a freshman.

Yet, with all that Leak has in his favor, Zook made the right choice in picking Martin as his starter.

At least for now.

Martin, a redshirt sophomore, is the safer choice. He did not force passes into coverage as much as Leak. Martin knows precisely what offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher is seeking in a game plan of quick outs and swing passes, and he is not likely to deviate from the plan.

Martin finished with flashy numbers (14-of-23 for 196 yards), though his receivers deserve much of the credit. Passes that barely reached the line of scrimmage were turned into big gains by Kelvin Kight or Carlos Perez.

Leak (10-of-14 for 111 yards) threw fewer passes, but went downfield with greater frequency. And better precision.

Much of it seemed to be a function of the gameplan. An understanding of each quarterback's strength. But some of it was Leak's natural aggression. His inclination to look long and think big.

There will be times it gets Leak in trouble. You might get away with youthful mistakes against San Jose State, but rarely against Miami. His maturation might be shorter than most, but it will not be without pain.

Leak already may be the better quarterback, but it does not necessarily mean he already is the better choice.

"Ingle doesn't get too excited. He does what you ask him to do," Zook said. "He ran the offense the way we wanted him. We didn't want to ask him to do things where he had to win the game. He just needs to run the offense."

There is a feeling in the locker room that Martin deserves this shot. That he paid his dues as Rex Grossman's backup and sacrificed his ego as a crisis punter last season.

This is fine. Loyalty is a wonderful concept. And if it figured into Zook's thinking, it is another example of his bond with players.

But it must be kept in perspective. Loyalty to one player is commendable, but loyalty to the entire team is more important.

What Zook cannot afford is to appear indecisive. To hold open the possibility of switching quarterbacks depending on who is hot. Few players excel when they are constantly looking over their shoulders.

That does not have to be the case here.

Because, eventually, Leak is going to pass Martin by.

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