Meyer Says There's No Quarterback Controversy

As spring football games go, Saturday's Orange and Blue Game wasn't about the stars coming out to shine for an adoring crowd of alumni and friends. With the exception Chris Leak and Tim Tebow --- and he had no choice but to play them the entire game since they're the only two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster --- Coach Urban Meyer pretty much put his playmakers on the sidelines, a move that served the dual purpose of preventing injury and making some younger players step it up.

Wide receivers Dallas Baker and Jemalle Cornelius were held out of action along with Bubba Caldwell, who was non-contact all spring as he continues his recovery from a broken leg. Defensive end Jarvis Moss earned a day on the sideline as did linebackers Brandon Siler and Earl Everett along with safeties Reggie Nelson and Tony Joiner. Guard Jim Tartt (shoulder surgery), defensive tackle Marcus Thomas (hernia surgery), defensive tackle Ray McDonald (recovering from ACL surgery) and linebacker Jonathon Demps (recovering from ACL surgery) were sidelined and cornerback Avery Atkins was held out after missing a week to take care of a family issue back in Daytona Beach.

So it wasn't exactly a star-studded game but it was entertaining enough for the 45,200 in attendance and it gave Meyer a chance to take one final look at some players who have made big strides this spring. The final scores shows the Tebow-led Orange team won the game, 24-6, over Leak and the Blue team. The stat sheet reads Tebow 15-21-0 for 197 yards and one touchdown and Leak 17-33-1 for 145 yards and no touchdowns.

The numbers and the fact the Orange won this game handily will probably lead to talk that there's a quarterback controversy brewing between the incumbent senior Leak, a three-year starter, and the true freshman Tebow, who enrolled at Florida in January. That's all it will be, though. Talk.

The numbers are deceiving because Leak had four passes dropped including a couple of the deep variety and his receivers didn't exactly do a great job separating from the Orange defensive backs. Tebow's receivers also dropped a couple of passes but the Orange had a consistent running threat and that helped getting receivers open.

The reality is that both Leak and Tebow would have had far better numbers if Baker and Cornelius had been playing but this was a game about the younger players. Meyer needed to see younger players step up and both Leak and Tebow needed to look for targets other than their reliable seniors.

So no matter what the numbers might say, Meyer's not buying into quarterback controversy theories even though he said it will make for "a great water cooler story … a great discussion around the coffee thing in the morning."

"Chris Leak is our quarterback and Tim Tebow is going to be the guy who's going to play," said Meyer.

Tebow is going to play in the fall, make no mistake about it. Count on him getting some reps in every single game. This isn't a conspiracy theory in the making or a mind game by Meyer to light a torch under Leak. It's an absolute necessity.

There are only two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster this spring and there aren't any freshman quarterbacks or transfers coming in this fall. That means Leak is the starter and Tebow has to get himself ready to go from day one. If anything were to happen to Leak in a game, Tebow has to be ready to step in and take over the team.

That means he's got to know the offense and develop poise under fire quickly to go against the speed and talent he's going to see in the Southeastern Conference. He doesn't have the luxury to red-shirt. He has to be ready on a moment's notice.

Leak was far more productive this spring, his second in the spread option offense that Meyer brought to Florida from Utah. This spring, Leak showed a much greater command of the offense and a greater willingness to use all the weapons at his disposal. He showed much better decision making skills, particularly in the area of taking yards in the running game that are given to him. Last season he was reluctant to tuck the ball and run when receivers weren't open even when he was left unaccounted for. This spring he showed that he fully understands that a four yard gain on first down is better than taking a sack or holding the ball forever before heaving it out of bounds. Second and six or second and five is a far better situation for the team than second and 10 or second and 14.

As an added dimension this spring, Meyer started sprinting Leak out and letting him make decisions in the passing game on the move. Throughout the spring and also in Saturday's game, Leak looked very comfortable throwing the ball on the run. He showed some elusiveness with the ball and the ability to throw the medium to deep routes accurately on the move.

Last year, Leak was susceptible to blitzes up the middle. Since he's only six feet tall, it's tough for him to see over tall offensive linemen and big D-linemen with their hands up. When opponents added the dimension of the blitz straight up the gut last year, the result was far too many sacks and an equal number of passes batted at the line of scrimmage.

One of the priorities this spring was to alter the offense so Leak could find passing lanes outside of the pocket and also open up the running game for him.

"You have to have a blitz beater," said Meyer. "One of the ways is to get him to the edge and passing the ball, which he did very good with the sprint out passing game."

Another blitz beater is the option, an area where Leak struggled last season. In practices leading up to the Orange and Blue Game, Leak looked far more decisive and comfortable in that phase of the game. Last year he moved down the line slowly and he locked in on the pitch man which eliminated the decision making by the defensive ends. Defensive ends simply played the pitch and usually stopped the play for little or no gain. This spring, Leak has shown a willingness to cut upfield with the ball, forcing defensive ends to respect him as a runner which opens the outside for the pitch.

Saturday, Leak didn't have the speed in the backfield that Tebow had so it's not a particularly big surprise that the freshman looked like the second coming of Tommie Frazier when he came down the line on the option. Having Markus Manson and DeShawn Wynn to pitch the ball to was a huge advantage and it showed in the final stats. The Orange rushed for 142 yards with Manson gaining 96, 61 on option plays. Leak's Blue team managed just 59 rushing yards and Leak had 16 of those on four carries.

While Leak was handicapped by receivers with the dropsies (Tate Casey had one drop of a 30-yarder and Louis Murphy let a 25-yard pass go through the wickets) and not much speed in the backfield, Tebow had some first game jitters that showed up in the first half. Meyer noticed it in some of the first huddles when he saw linemen asking each other what was the play call.

"The quarterback takes control when you're breaking the huddle and if you're hearing them [linemen] talking to each other because they didn't hear the play the general's not doing a very good job," said Meyer.

Meyer attributed the problem to the kind of nervousness you would expect of a kid who skipped playing baseball his senior year in high school to get a head start in spring football practice at the college level. There was a game-day atmosphere even though the stadium was only half-full and that helped contribute to the early jitters.

"The one advantage we have over a lot of schools is to play in front of 45000 in the spring," said Meyer. "It's hard to simulate that. I don't want to say locked up because he didn't lock up but the way the game started he was a little nervous. He's one of those football players that as the game continues, he gets better and better."

Meyer liked what he saw of both his quarterbacks this spring. He saw enough improvement in Leak to know that his senior is far better prepared to put pressure on defenses from all different angles with the spread option offense. There wasn't much option last year and because of injuries at the wide receiver positions, there wasn't a whole lot of downfield passing.

In the fall, Meyer will have Baker, who Meyer says is one of the best wide receivers he's ever been around, Cornelius, who had a great spring, and a healthy Caldwell with his blazing 4.3 speed. He will also have the added dimension that Cornelius Ingram brings to the offense.

"He's probably our most improved player of spring practice," said Meyer, who admitted throughout the spring that Ingram is so versatile that the offensive coaches are still figuring out all the ways he can be used.

Last spring, Ingram struggled as the fourth string quarterback. This spring he's an emerging weapon that will only improve and give the receiving corps one more playmaker.

"I think he's probably the most natural ball catcher that I've seen since Chris Carter which is a long time ago at Ohio State," said Meyer. "He's a natural. He's one of those kids that you can tell there wasn't a lot of X-Box in his life. He was out in the back yard throwing the ball around."

Meyer should also have an improved corps of tailbacks in the fall. Moving Billy Latsko to tailback had an overall effect on this group that the coach has consistently called under-achievers.

"If a group goes out and they're the hardest working position group you can deal with a lack of production," said Meyer. "If there's a lack of intensity, work ethic and it's been consistent for some time you've got a problem. I think that's where were at last fall. It started in two-a-days and it didn't improve during the fall. When we lost Ciatrick Fason, we lost the work ethic of the group. That's why we put Billy Latsko there."

Latsko's leadership throughout the spring has shown up with improvement from Manson and Wynn. If the improvement continues in the fall, Meyer will have the weapons in place to force opposing defenses to try to cover the entire field, something they didn't have to do last year when the offense was fairly predictable.

But the success of the offense will rest on the play at the quarterback position. Chris Leak is the incumbent and the senior with the experience and the confidence to get the job done. Tim Tebow is the freshman with all the right instincts and the prototypical size to be a mega-star in the spread option.

They will both play in the fall but make no mistake about it. Chris Leak is going to be the starter and Tim Tebow is going to be the apprentice. There is no controversy here.

"Chris Leak is our quarterback," said Meyer.

And Tim Tebow is his backup.

There are a lot of coaches in the country that would sacrifice a body part to have a situation like that.


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