SPRING: Leak's Progress Has Meyer, Mullen Happy

On the eve of the first full contact scrimmage in The Swamp, the New Head Ball Coach (NHBC) is a bit on edge. He's had six practices with the Florida Gators, seen some contact drills and even some goal line scrimmaging, but Saturday he will have a real measure of where the team is and where it needs to be in two more weeks when spring practice is over. In particular, he's ready to see where his offense is going.

With all but one series of plays put in, this will be a first opportunity to see how the ball is moved and how well the team has grasped all the new data and concepts that they're taking from the drawing board to the practice field.

"There's one series of plays which we have not put in which is not that big a deal," said Meyer after Friday's practice. "We're starting to execute a little better but you see it's coming. I'm really anxious to see what we've got tomorrow."

The Meyer offense is a spread option which seems to be a hybrid of a number of successful offenses. It's part double wing power football as it's run from the shotgun with a quarterback and running back to go with two wingbacks. It's part wishbone with the quarterback running the option. It's got west coast offense concepts in the passing game, and yet there is plenty of down field throwing.

Chris Leak has been impressive, according to Coaches Meyer and Mullen. Here, Leak lines up at today's practice.

Through the first few practices, Meyer watched as quarterback Chris Leak played almost tentatively at times. Meyer said that was to be expected of any veteran quarterback learning a new offense. Rather than throw the ball away or make critical mistakes, Leak was reserved in the way he delivered the ball. Meyer kept waiting patiently for Leak to break out of that cautious mode. He wants a quarterback who plays under control, for sure, but he wants his quarterback to play with the kind of abandon that pressures a defense on every play.

Meyer saw good signs from Leak at Wednesday's practice but it was the Friday practice that convinced the coach that the quarterback is turning the corner with this new offense, described by quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen as a "concept offense."

"The object of the game is not to turn it over and he (Leak) acts like that which is good," said Meyer. "Now just let it rip and he let it rip today. I thought he threw the ball really well today."

While there has been some concern about Leak's arm strength, there has been work done to correct some mechanical flaws in Leak's delivery. Mechanics, however, are only a part of the problem. Some of the problems are self-imposed by Leak. A two-year veteran who has played in numerous big games at Florida, Leak is keenly aware that it's necessary to avoid turnovers. He will hold the ball or make the easy throw rather than take a chance on throwing it away. That protect the ball mentality is also at the root of the zip problem.

"I don't think it's arm strength," said Meyer. "I think it's confidence and letting it rip. He's like Alex Smith (Meyer's quarterback at Utah). You would have questioned his arm strength, too, because unless he knew what was going on he wouldn't throw it."

Coach Meyer giving Chris Leak some instruction.

To counter the mechanical problems, Mullen has worked with Leak to shorten his stride and make his delivery more compact. In his previous two seasons, Leak would bring the ball far back behind his ear and throw every ball completely over the top. That created a wonderful touch pass, but there was a definite lack of zip on some throws. Leak still brings it over the top but he doesn't need to take it back nearly as far behind the ear. He releases more quickly and the tough out pattern throws are more on a line.

During Friday's practice, Leak threw several 15 and 25-yard out patterns as well or better than he's thrown the ball since he's been at Florida. Earlier this week, those throws were off a little bit, but as the speed of the ball to the receiver has increased, the accuracy has begun to come back.

"When you watch him on film he has great touch and he's a very accurate passer but he never seems to throw the ball with a lot of zip," said Mullen. "That's what we're trying to get out of him, really letting that thing rip, a fast ball, being a pitcher with a 90 mile per hour fast ball. When you start changing to do that your accuracy is going to be a little off at first and then it will zoom back in. That's kind of what we've done and he's starting to do that. You can already see the accuracy starting to come back in by throwing the ball harder."

Many of the other mechanical issues had their origin in footwork and balance. A great deal of time has been spent to improve that area. Having Leak set up the right way, able to throw the ball properly from the right place and with his body balanced, is important.

"Keeping him compact and footwork and balance as a quarterback you always have to have great footwork and balance," said Mullen. "A lot of our passing game is based off his drop and the steps that he's taking in the pocket. You watch last year some of the stuff and even now, his feet are a little bit all over the place and so we work an awful lot of time on his balance and taking the right steps so that when he throws the ball he's not late. His balance is all set with his footwork and timing."

Leak has always been known as a quarterback who spends hours studying film and learning his role in the offense. Even in high school he was considered well ahead of other quarterbacks in the nation because he had such a great understanding of the offensive concepts and had learned to read defenses through watching hours and hours of film. One thing that hasn't changed is his approach to the game. Learning a new offense has rededicated Leak to film study and that is something that is beginning to show off in practices.

Leak drops back with Portis (right) and Kynes, (left) rushing in a quarterback drill.

"He's a great student," said Mullen. "He spends a lot of time studying and working on everything. He always wants to be ahead of the game. I'm happy with how he's picked up the offense. I think he probably knows the offense better than anybody out here on the field right now which is exactly what you want from your quarterback and we just have to get his decision making sped up and that what comes with time and reps."

At Bowling Green, Mullen tutored Josh Harris. In two seasons Harris went from obscurity to a draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens. He's spent the past two years with the Ravens as Kyle Boller's backup. At Utah, Mullen's protégé was Alex Smith, another obscure reserve who became the starter and rose to prominence. Smith is now considered a good bet to be the first quarterback taken in the NFL draft in April.

Now the pupil is Leak who has actual starting experience under his belt to go with a number of wins in big games in pressure situations. Asked to compare where Leak is in the Meyer offense with where Harris and Smith were in their first spring practices, Mullen said, "Chris is obviously way ahead of those guys. None of those guys ever played in a game. Chris has already played in some big games in his career. He's already well advanced beyond those guys which is a great feeling because those were two great quarterbacks. He's way more advanced than they were in their first spring."

While the starting quarterback is certain for the Gators, the backup positions are still very much up in the air. Gavin Dickey practiced Friday prior to leaving early to play in Florida's baseball game with South Carolina. Redshirt freshman Cornelius Ingram, who joined the team Monday after spending the winter with the basketball team, got his first chance to throw the ball and he shared reps with true freshman Josh Portis.

"Backup quarterback I couldn't tell you who it is," said Meyer. "You've got one guy that's playing baseball (Dickey), one guy that's shooting free throws (Ingram) and one guy that should be getting ready for the senior prom (Portis) so you have an issue there but they're all good players."

WIDE RECEIVERS: Meyer said that Jemalle Cornelius has worked hard to become the single most improved player at the wideout position.

"I think he is the most improved guy right now," said Meyer. "He takes coaching better than the other guys. When you talk about techniques that we teach our receivers, he's picked it up faster than all of them."

Bubba Caldwell had a poor practice on Wednesday, but he came back with a vengeance Friday. His effort on Friday definitely caught the NHBC's attention.

Bubba Caldwell goes up high for the ball in front of Nick Brooks.>

"Bubba was great," said Meyer. "After he got tanked the other day he kinda got it pretty good. What is today? Friday? Wednesday he did not have a very good day. The sign of a good player is coming back and battling and he did."

While the wide receiver positions are virtually interchangeable in this offense, there are certain positions which would be more conducive for certain receivers. That is one area that the coaches are still trying to find the matches for the available talent. With four wideouts on most every play, there will be two outside receivers on almost every play and two in the slot.

"We're still analyzing," said Meyer, talking about who will play where. " Bubba's played inside before. Chad [Jackson] kinda has the body type and movement that you're looking and size [to play inside] and of course Bubba has the world class… you know he's got ridiculous speed that you want on the outside. It's still too early to tell."

In Saturday's scrimmage, Meyer is hoping to get his big play wide receivers into the act early.

"I'm hoping guys like Chad Jackson, Bubba Caldwell and Chris create some big plays," he said. "The way our defense is playing us in practice which is the way a lot of teams have to, they're not playing very sound coverage wise so you have some one-on-one matchups but right now you have some corners playing well. I think tomorrow will be a good matchup to see if we can cover them and if we can get open."

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