SPRING: Mullen's Assignment: Find A Backup QB

Chris Leak's hard work in practice has solidified his position as Florida's number one quarterback. There is no reason to expect that he will practice in the summer any differently than he has this spring so it's not a reach to expect a more polished and efficient Leak when the Gators face Wyoming in game one September 3.

The first string quarterback position isn't really the question. The job is Leak's. There are three quarterbacks vying for that second spot on the depth charts --- Gavin Dickey, Josh Portis and Cornelius Ingram. Dickey is playing baseball this spring for the Gators and it is entirely possible he could be gone for good if he's drafted high enough in June. Ingram spent the winter playing basketball so he's way behind in picking up the offense. That leaves Portis, a true freshman who should be getting ready for his senior prom, but instead he's enrolled at Florida and taking a crash course in quarterbacking at the collegiate level.

Leak will be a junior in the fall. He has all the experience and the maturity that one would want in a starting quarterback. Dickey will be a fourth year junior if he doesn't opt for professional baseball. He has the maturity but not much in the way of game experience. Ingram (redshirt) and Portis are freshmen and both are playing catch up. They are both immensely talented but they have so much to learn.

Quarterback Coach Dan Mullen took time to discuss Florida's quarterbacks Wednesday afternoon. Mullen is the man who took Josh Harris from a nobody to an all-star at Bowling Green. Harris is now with the Baltimore Ravens. At Utah, he took unknown Alex Smith and in two years turned him into such a hot commodity that he may be the first quarterback drafted in the NFL draft in a few weeks.


Chris Leak has locked down the starting QB job for now.

Like Harris and Smith before him, Leak is working overtime this first spring with Mullen. This is a different and more demanding offense than he's run the previous two years. While physically more demanding, it is the mental part of the game to Mullen thinks that Leak is grasping better every day, a tribute to his work ethic.

"He's getting real good," Mullen said. "He is starting to see it. Every day I see steady improvement, because I still have not seen the plateau. You worry when you see the plateau, then you have to figure out how to fight through it. He is still getting better and better every day, which is great to see. In that he is really starting to understand the offense. That is what is helping him getting better every day in his decision making. Once he gets it down, he will be set, because then he can start to control the defense. Instead of just reading guys, he can move defenders with his eyes to make the throws that he wants."

There will come a time when the quarterback will have to change a call at the line of scrimmage. He will have to do a pre-snap read of the defense and line his offensive teammates in the right formation and play against that defense. Mullen thinks Leak will be ready to do that come this fall. He is already seeing the lights going on in Leak's head, but it is something that doesn't come very natural for Leak.

He will have the opportunity to change the calls in the fall.

"Oh yeah, he is doing it now," Mullen said. "He is starting to make a lot of the decisions. He is getting much better. He has never been a real vocal guy. If you have seen him from day one (of spring practice) until now, he is starting to get up and yell and talk to people and get everybody going and that is what we really want out of him and he has worked hard at it. By next year I'm hoping he is ready to roll. He can check us into the right protections, get us into the right plays, make all the right decisions, and really know what is going on before the ball is snapped every play."

The one component of Leak's game that has had the fans worried the most is the physical part of running the ball. Leak and the other quarterbacks in this offense will be asked to carry the ball much more often than they have in years past. This will also include option pitches and shovel passes while on the run. Leak came to the University of Florida as a pure drop back passer. In high school and in his first two years at Florida, he ran only out of necessity. Now he's being asked to run as part of the offensive design

Mullen believes that all four of his quarterbacks can handle everything from the mental aspects to the physical demands of the job.


Who's going to be the back-up quarterback, in addition to Portis?

"It comes with time," Mullen said. "To be a really good option quarterback, it has nothing to do with athleticism. It has more to do with decision making. The more he is getting reps and the more he sees the looks, the more natural it becomes. I think he is a good decision maker and has a great feel for the game. So, the more he sees the looks, the easier the option decisions are for him."

One of the stranger scenarios in practice has been the one that Dickey has been living out every week. Baseball demands have caused Dickey to miss four of Florida's nine practices. As Head Coach Urban Meyer pointed out Wednesday, "I didn't see Dickey out here, did you? He's chasing down line drives in left field somewhere."

Mullen would like to have the junior quarterback practicing football every day but says Dickey is doing everything he can to keep up with the other three.

"It hurts him that he's not here and he's not getting the reps," Mullen said. "The great thing about Gavin, he has played football, he is a little bit of an older guy. He really knows the offense because when he knows he is going to be out of town he comes in to make up the time that he knows he is going to miss. It's not like he just walked away today and misses it altogether. He'll be in to get the extra time and make up for it. He loves to play the game."

Dickey is usually third in the rotation when all are four quarterbacks are at practice. He and Ingram missed the first three days of practice. Dickey was with the baseball team and Ingram was finishing up with the basketball team. Because they missed the opportunities for reps, the depth chart is a long way from being set in stone.

"For us, we figure the depth chart out during game week in the fall." Mullen said with a grin. "Hopefully he [Dickey] gets all the mental reps and keeps learning all he needs to learn."

At the other end of the learning spectrum is Portis, who was the All-City quarterback in Los Angeles last fall. Portis took early graduation from high school and enrolled at UF in January. Instead of attending his senior prom he's getting a jump on his college arrived here early out of high school when he graduated in January. He should be attending his high school prom this month but instead, he's jump starting his college football career. Ranked the number five prep quarterback in the nation by Scout.com, Portis arrived with a big time reputation as a playmaker. Each day he's shown glimpses that his high school reputation was well deserved. Mullen believes the future for Portis is very bright.


Josh Portis as he scrambles to find an open receiver

"Thank goodness he is here," Mullen said. "He is still just 17 years old and stuff is moving very fast for him right now. When you go from high school to college it looks like there are 22 guys out there playing defense. They are just everywhere because everyone is so much faster than they were in high school. Just the speed of the game and the quickness to make decisions has to catch up to him. It is invaluable the experience he has gained by coming here early instead of waiting till fall camp."

Portis makes improvement every day and while Mullen loves the way the tall, angular kid is catching on, he's got a long way to go to catch up with the guy at the head of the train.

"He [Portis] is working at it," Mullen said. "He has so many little things to work on. Chris has played and has a lot more game experience. He has a lot less to worry about than Josh does. Josh is going to be a little bit longer process to learn than Chris, because he has more to learn about reading defenses and being on the field and all that stuff."

Portis is used to playing in an offense similar to the one that he ran in high school where he was a threat to run or pass on every play. That kind of ability is precisely why he was the only quarterback Meyer recruited, first at Utah, then at Florida.

In addition to the improvement Mullen has seen from Portis on the football field, he loves the fact that his talented freshman has packed on added muscle since his arrival in Gainesville.

"He is fast and he is quick," Mullen said. "I think he has put on 20 pounds since he has been here, and for the college game, that is enormous. Not just because his body is going to get hit, but because he is so much bigger, faster, and stronger. That comes with putting on that size. His physicalness is going to improve. Once he reaches physical maturity, watch out. You know, he may grow for another two years."

Mullen is the first to admit he's got four very talented quarterbacks on his roster, but he is also very aware that the situation could change quickly. Leak is solid as the starter but it's the quarterback coach's job to have a backup ready to play on a moment's notice. There is the uncertainty of Dickey and the lack of experience of his two freshmen. It will be his job over the next few months to change this from a position of uncertainty to a position of true strength.


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