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Slow, then sharp

Florida 34, Southern Miss. 7
Year 2 under coach Urban Meyer much like Year 1: Sluggish, then picking up steam.

Published September 3, 2006

[Times photos: James Borchuck]
Florida receiver Dallas Baker snatches a Chris Leak pass in front of Southern Mississippi's Caleb Hendrix in the fourth quarter. Baker finished with nine catches for 123 yards and a touchdown.
Chris Leak's third pass was intercepted, but he threw for 248 yards and three scores.

GAINESVILLE - They adore the quarterback of the past. They are infatuated with the quarterback of the future. And if Chris Leak keeps throwing three touchdown passes a week, I suppose they'll tolerate him, too.

So began the final season of Leak's career at the University of Florida on Saturday. While he was in the locker room before the start of the game, he might have heard 90,000 voices screaming their love of Danny Wuerffel in a pregame ceremony. And while he was on the sideline at the start of the fourth quarter, he surely heard them shouting their approval of Tim Tebow's touchdown run.

In between, Leak won a football game.

He was mostly efficient, if not spectacular. He was entirely capable, if not flashy. Basically, he was a tad better than the outrageously high minimum standard.

It was enough to keep people from calling Tebow's name too loudly, but not enough to keep the hotshot freshman out of future conversations.

Even coach Urban Meyer was gushing about Tebow after the game, while he was purposefully stingy with his praise of Leak.

In a way, it was representative of Leak's time at Florida. He has you admiring his best qualities, and yet continually hoping for something more.

Unfortunately for him, that something more was wearing a pair of headphones and standing conspicuously on the sideline most of the night.

The debut of Tebow against Southern Miss may have been the most anticipated moment of Saturday's season opener. Fans were already chanting his name in the first half. Before he took a snap, he had to quiet the crowd. He did not throw a pass and still managed to earn an ovation that rivaled any Leak has heard.

Put in with a 21-7 lead and the ball near the Southern Miss goal line, Tebow scored on his second official play in college. With the ball at the 1, Tebow rolled left and stiff-armed a defender at the 4, dropped one hand to the ground at the 2 and dove into the end zone from there.

"He's going to be a terrific player here," Meyer said. "I didn't see it because it was so far away, but I think he stiff-armed the guy and willed his way into the end zone. He's going to will his way into the end zone a bunch around here."

Not so long ago, Leak was the phenom everyone wanted to see. The freshman supposedly mature beyond his age. He has accomplished much since then, but no one wants to talk about that today.

You see, everything that came before Saturday was nothing more than a preamble for Leak. The recruiting hype, the freshman records, the 8,000 passing yards? They mean diddly without a happy ending.

This season is Leak's career. His history is rich in numbers, but not in memories. He is a hero-in-waiting, still looking for his defining moment.

Soon, he should pass Rex Grossman as the No. 3 passer in UF history. After that, Shane Matthews and Wuerffel will be within reach.

But the records aren't enough. Wuerffel, Matthews and Grossman won SEC titles at quarterback. Leak hasn't come close.

He may be more comfortable in the offense this season, but that's just a matter of degree. Leak still looks stiff at times, and he's not going to outrun many linebackers.

Meyer downsized his offense to better suit Leak last season, and it's still being run short of capacity. Of the 30 or so offensive plays in the first half Saturday, Leak ran the option or rolled out about a half-dozen times. Everything else was either a handoff or a pass from the pocket.

That's not the offense Meyer ran at Utah, and it's not the offense Florida fans expected to see in his second season in Gainesville.

It's a shame because Leak is a fine quarterback. He is smart. He has a decent arm. Were he playing in Steve Spurrier's offense, we might think of him differently.

But the reality is he was saddled with an inept coach and two shaky offensive coordinators in his first two seasons at Florida. Now, he is working for a widely acclaimed genius who likes his quarterbacks bigger and quicker.

Oh, you shouldn't write him off just yet. There is a toughness to Leak that we have yet to see fully on display. There is a fire in him that may still emerge.

Leak will remain in charge next week against Central Florida. And, no doubt, at Tennessee the week after that.

This is his team, until further notice.

This is his legacy, still waiting to be written.

[Last modified September 3, 2006, 17:39:34]

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