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At 5-0, these are Leak's Gators

By GARY SHELTON
Published October 1, 2006


GAINESVILLE - The program and the passer are intertwined. Even now, especially now, they are the same.

They have walked the same path with the same stride, and they have shared their moments. They have heard the same noise, the good and the bad. At times, it seems as if the crowd has fallen for another, but considering the importance of the moments to come, that doesn't matter, either.

The Florida Gators still lean upon Chris Leak, and he upon them.

From here, you wonder how far they can make it together.

Say what you will about Leak, and yes, most of us have. Talk about what he has been or what he was supposed to have been. Talk about Tim Tebow, the Next Big Thing.

Then talk about 5-0 and the next chapter of Murderer's Row.

Before long, you will realize that you are talking about Leak again.

Leak was terrific in the second half of Saturday's 28-13 comeback victory over Alabama. He was poised. He was precise. He was everything he was promised to be. Also, he was barely inside the locker room when the crowd began to chant Tebow's name as the freshman walked into the locker room after the game.

It is an interesting sight, watching fans cheer tomorrow at a time when today looks so good. Leak is Florida's hope, now and in the weeks to come. If Florida has a chance of surviving this impossible October - with games coming up against LSU, Auburn and Georgia - it will be because of Leak.

Feel about that how you will. There are still times Leak looks uncomfortable with this offense, and because of it, there are times the crowd looks uncomfortable with him. Perhaps it is because he shows so little emotion. Perhaps it is because he has not won enough games. Regardless, a lot of games have passed since he was the new kid in town.

In many ways, then, Saturday's victory was a testament to how much the Gators, and how much their quarterback, have grown over the past year. Do you remember how badly Florida was beaten by Alabama last year? Do you remember how badly Leak played? They were coupled by disappointment then, a team and a player both short of expectations.

Maybe you thought about that game during the first half Saturday. The Gators were, to use Urban Meyer's word, awful. They came out to run, and they couldn't. They tried to throw, and they couldn't do much of that, either.

Leak, too, was struggling. He hit only five of his first 10 passes, and Alabama should have intercepted two of them. With Florida running from the shotgun formation, a snap bounced off Leak's chest - he had his face turned, trying to correct a flaw in the formation - and Alabama returned it for a touchdown.

It was 10-0 Alabama, and the day looked ugly. "We were dead in the water," Meyer said.

Imagine being Leak at that moment. The crowd is cheering for Tebow, and the game is slipping away, and the offense is sputtering.

A year ago, Leak doesn't bounce back the way he does. A year ago, Florida doesn't, either.

This time, both did. Leak led his team on a 95-yard touchdown drive just before the half, a chunk of the yardage coming on his 45-yard run on a quarterback draw. If you have seen Leak run in the past, perhaps you shared Meyer's view of the play.

""Whoa," Meyer said. "Chris Leak ran 45 yards."

In the second half, Leak was better. He hit nine of his 10 passes, missing only a shovel pass near the Alabama goal line.

Leak's most impressive play, however, came near the end of the third quarter, when he found Andre Caldwell for the go-ahead touchdown.

Leak had a play called where he could run another quarterback draw, or, depending on what he saw, throw to Caldwell. He saw Caldwell with single coverage. Seconds later, Caldwell leapt across the goal line for a 16-yard touchdown. Leak hit all four of his passes on the drive for 74 yards.

"I'm probably proudest of that play," Meyer said. "That was a Chris Leak play. That was not a call from the sideline. That was Leak and Caldwell.

"If we even tried to accomplish that last year, we would have looked like the Three Stooges out there. It would not have been good. That's how far Chris has come. That was an adjustment to a look. That's a great sign of a quarterback taking control of an offense."

Given the days ahead, any sign at all is good. It is the nation's most imposing schedule, and to get through it successfully, the Gators are going to have to run the ball better. They're going to have to play better defense on third down. They're going to have get off to a better start.

As ever, they're going to need Leak to be calm admit the chaos.

If he can pull it off a few more times, who knows? Maybe someday, the crowd will chant his name.

[Last modified October 1, 2006, 00:38:33]


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