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Second attempts

With a full season of coach Urban Meyer's spread-option offense under their belts, the Gators are hoping to benefit from a complete understanding of the system's complexity.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published September 1, 2006


GAINESVILLE -- It is a trend that has occurred everywhere he's been during his short tenure as a head coach, but don't ask Urban Meyer about his success in the second year at programs he has taken over.

His offense, he insists, is "personnel-driven." It's the players who make it work, not the other way around.

So as Florida prepares for its second season under Meyer, the coach is seriously downplaying the buzz that second-year offensive production could soar.

When Meyer was at Bowling Green, points per game increased to 40.8 in the second season from 30.2 in the first season. At Utah, it grew to 44.3 from 28.7.

But while Meyer may be deflecting attention, the Florida players and some assistant coaches insist that after a complete season of playing in Meyer's complicated spread-option offense, everything is in place for Florida to have similar results this season.

"I hope so. I really hope so," offensive coordinator Dan Mullen said. "You know, it does take time. And those guys, even though they get it, they've gone through it live in games now. Getting it out here on the practice field and getting it when you're at LSU, at Tennessee, at South Carolina, at Florida State, that's when you have to get it. So I think hopefully, now they've been through that, now they really understand how it's going to look in a live game situation.

"What it is for everybody in that second year there's a complete understanding of the offense," Mullen added. "So now Chris Leak can come out and he can see the big picture of things. I think a lot of times the first year, everybody is struggling with what do I have to do on this play? And not, what's the big picture of why my job is important on this play. And once somebody understands that, then it all starts flowing a lot faster."

A huge part of Florida's success or failure will rest with Leak. He's a four-year starter at quarterback, but for the first time in his career he's entering the season with the same offensive coordinator - and offense - as he operated under the previous year. His teammates said that alone has made a difference for Leak and those around him.

"The offensive players getting used to the system is a big, main part of it," fullback Billy Latsko said. "With Chris Leak having switched systems each year he's been here and coming in as a freshman Chris didn't have anyone to learn from. So I think he's grown up a lot and this is the first time he's had the same system consecutive years and that's a big part of the offense. And now everyone has learned and bought into coach Meyer's system, I think that's what is going to make it produce more this year."

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From the moment Meyer was hired from Utah, questions arose about whether Leak, a natural drop-back passer, was suited to run Meyer's spread-option offense.

The questions remain.

"I do feel his track record of second-year breakouts might be in a little bit of jeopardy because in my mind watching him and watching tapes of last year's games, we're still not going to see his offense," CBS analyst Gary Danielson said. "I still think the transition, considering the competition level, is more likely to happen in year three than in year two. He's an awesome coach and he's got great football players, but we'll see. I still think you're seeing a point guard who is being forced to go to the left."

Meyer isn't among the naysayers.

"Chris Leak in my opinion had a very good year in the spread offense," Meyer said. "He won more games than he's ever won. His completion percentage was higher (62.8 percent, compared to 59.6). He threw half as many interceptions (six). At the University of Florida and most programs, you're not evaluated on yards thrown, but winning championships."

You can sense Meyer has had enough of those who question whether his offense can work in the SEC.

"I think the two catchwords now in college football are spread offense and West Coast offense," he said. "There are multiple variations of it. Texas didn't do too bad with the spread offense; Penn State didn't do too shabby. I think it's a personnel-driven offense."

Personnel is what many see as Florida's biggest problem.

"You've got a drop-back quarterback and I don't know if Chris and the system coordinate well," CBS play-by-play announcer Verne Lundquist said. "That's a topic that has been discussed ad nauseam in Florida and the SEC."

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Leak is well aware of the importance of his role this season and that his legacy may depend on whether the Gators have a championship banner to hang when the season ends.

"Our finishing the season strong will pretty much define how hard I worked through the years I've been here," he said when asked if this season will determine how he'll be remembered. "I'm real confident. All of our seniors are confident we're going to have an excellent year."

It's not as if Leak hasn't had success. You might argue that many quarterbacks would love to have had his 2005 season: 2,639 yards and 20 touchdowns. But his production was down from the 2004 season in which he threw for 3,197 yards and 29 touchdowns. He is 2,604 yards shy of former Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel's career passing yards record, but he's never led his team to a championship.

During the offseason, Leak volunteered at a camp hosted by Peyton and Eli Manning. By all accounts reserved and soft-spoken by nature, what Leak hoped to learn most was how to enhance his leadership skills.

"I especially wanted to know from Eli because he's a quiet guy and he had to go into New York and play behind Kurt Warner," Leak said. "He told me you've got to be yourself, but go in with the mind-set that you're going to help your team however possible. And with Peyton, I wanted to find out how he directed his offense. You see him on TV all the time, checking plays. I was just trying to learn tips on reading defenses and things like that. Because all of that together is leadership."

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Leak's success will be directly tied to an offensive line that is young, inexperienced and ailing after several key injuries in the preseason. But he will be helped by a group of receivers who are being compared to some of the best Florida has had. Meyer has often said he needs 12 receivers to make the offense click, and he may finally be close to that number. Many are veterans who believe the second year will make all the difference.

"Last year there was a lot of thinking, a lot of second-guessing yourself, not too sure on certain plays," receiver Jemalle Cornelius said. "But I don't think there's any of that this year. It takes time, especially this offense because it's real complex. You've got a lot of different formations. And as a receiver, you can't learn just one spot because we run so many different formations, you could be at a different spot. So we have focused on learning the whole offense, not just being our individual positions and that helped us out a lot."

Leak is determined to block out all the negative talk directed at him and let fate take its course. He also plans to focus on a special message Eli Manning delivered: "Enjoy your senior year. You'll never get this time again."

"It goes by fast, I'll tell you that," Leak said. "I've enjoyed my entire time here. Now the main thing I want to try to do is try and enjoy the little things: being able to wear a Gator uniform and all those little things that when you look back are really precious to you."

Like showing off your SEC championship ring 20 years from now.