SCOTT: QB battle heating up in Florida

The last thing anyone expected out of Florida's spring practice will be the first thing on the minds of Gator fans throughout the offseason.

It's a genuine quarterback competition that could turn into a quarterback controversy.

 

Neither true freshman Tim Tebow or senior Chris Leak played his role during the spring. Tebow was supposed to come in, listen, watch, learn and prepare himself for a limited role as Leak's backup this fall. Leak, a three-year starter, was supposed to take his game to another level in his second season under coach Urban Meyer and become a more willing and productive runner.

 

If the annual spring game is any indication, Tebow has come a lot further than anyone expected for his first spring at Florida and Leak hasn't come far enough to guarantee his place in the lineup. An announced crowd of 45,200 fans saw Tebow pass for more yards than Leak and complete a higher percentage of passes. Tebow also looked more proficient at running the option and passed for the game's only touchdown pass. Tebow's Orange team also beat Leak's Blue team 24-6.

 

However, if you're starting to dial up your bookie to take that bet on whether or now Tebow will start the season opener against Southern Miss on Sept. 2, put the phone down. It's only spring game and Leak was often convicted of his teammates' mistakes, including dropped passes and missed opportunities.

 

"Since the first day, Coach Meyer has said I'm his quarterback," Leak said. "I have a lot of confidence that this is my team. I'm the captain of this team. I'm so confident in these guys. I'm just excited to get going."

 

If you take the spring as a whole, as Meyer and his coaching staff will do, there is no quarterback controversy – even if many fans want one to emerge.

 

"I can see that (it will be viewed as a quarterback controversy)," Meyer said. "The good thing is there is not a quarterback controversy in-house. For Gator fans and college football fans, that's a great water cooler story, that's a great discussion around the coffee maker in the morning.

 

"The great discussion upstairs (in the coaches' office) is that Chris Leak is our quarterback and Tim Tebow is going to be a guy who plays. His playing time is all dictated by Tim Tebow. We're going to let him grow as a quarterback.

 

"There is no quarterback controversy. Those are two great young men we're going to build the offense around and be successful. We can't wait. It's real exciting to have that situation."

 

The most positive thing about the spring game is that it suggests Florida will be able to play Tebow with some confidence in the fall. Meyer wanted to use Tebow in a regular role this fall and Tebow spent the spring justifying that hope with his progress. Tebow better be ready because the Gators are short on quarterback.

 

"I really enjoyed watching Tim Tebow," Meyer said. "He was nervous. One of the advantages we have over a lot of schools is to play in front of 45,000 people in the spring. It's hard to simulate. The way the game started, he was a little nervous. But then at the end, he's one of those players as the game continues he gets better and better. I thought he was pretty good."

 

Leak also did plenty of positive things in the spring, although he still has a long way to go when it comes to effectively running the option in the Florida offense. Meyer has said time and time again that the offense won't work correctly if Leak isn't willing and able to carry out the quarterback keeper on the option – a fact that was all too obvious in 2005.

 

"Coach Meyer told me I've had a great spring and I'm just going to keep on listening to my coaches," Leak said. "You can't take a scrimmage as seriously as you would like to with a lot of guys not playing.

"I just played with the hand I was dealt. We have a lot of young, talented guys and we have to get them going and making plays."

 

For all the focus on Tebow and Leak, making plays turned out to be the real story of the spring and the spring game for the Gators. While former quarterback Cornelius Ingram made a surprising and positive transition to tight end/slot receiver, the remaining offensive skill players didn't do enough to convince the coaches they're anywhere close to being ready for the 2006 season.

 

It didn't help that senior receivers Dallas Baker and Jemalle Cornelius and junior receiver Andre Caldwell played insignificant roles in the game because of experience or injuries, or that the reserve receivers dropped several passes, including three would-be touchdowns.

 

"We have a serious void at playmakers, which you shouldn't have that here," Meyer said. "We have an incoming freshman class that will have an opportunity to bypass some guys unless we can get a little better."

 

 

While the Florida quarterback competition isn't as close as many fans will make it out to be, the Kentucky quarterback competition is probably a lot closer than many fans ever expected it to be.

 

Junior Andre Woodson returns after starting all 11 games last season but he continues to struggle with inconsistency, decision making and turnovers. Sophomore Curtis Pulley played in nine games in a backup role at both quarterback and receiver last year and did enough to keep the coaches encouraged about his potential.

 

Pulley turned the situation into a legitimate race for the starting job with a strong spring. They continued their competition in the spring game with Woodson completing eight of 11 passes for 71 yards and a touchdown while Pulley completed nine of 11 passes for 63 yards and no score. Neither player threw an interception but Woodson lost a fumble and took three sacks while Pulley took one sack. Pulley also ran five times for 10 yards, with a long of nine, while Woodson ran nine times for -10 yards.

 

Obviously, neither one of these guys is likely to emerge as Heisman contenders anytime soon, but someone has to step up and become a solid force at quarterback for the Wildcats.

 

Woodson is the better drop-back passer in the race but he has a lot to learn about taking care of the ball and making better decisions. Pulley is the better scrambler and more dangerous runner, but he must make progress as a pocket passer and improve his arm strength.

 

"The quarterback competition is going to continue through the summer and early fall," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said. "I thought both of them did some good things and both did some things they need to correct. Make no mistake about it is a very serious competition and a very close one.

 

"Obviously, Woodson's strength is with his arm and Curtis's strength is what he can do to break down a defense with his feet. Curtis threw some really nice balls, those of you who watched him last fall can see that he has improved throwing the ball.

 

"I thought Andre' a couple of times, pulled the ball down and ran with authority. We need a guy to be able to do both and do both well. The good news to me is that both of them have been in games and both have experience. I think both have the chance to be really good quarterbacks."

 

 

It would be easy to dismiss Mississippi State's recent baseball struggles as a slump or even a second-half swoon, but it would be wrong. The explanation for it is a lot more complicated.

"When you get to the point where you're 26-9 and people say what a bad year," legendary Mississippi State coach Ron Polk said last week, "you say, 'Whoa.' "

 

OK, Whoa. Here goes: After an 18-0 start and a No. 1 No. 1 ranking by Baseball America for the first time since 1993, the Bulldogs went 8-9 over their next 17 games. Some of that has to do with schedule. Mississippi State's strong start came against teams that entered last week with a combined 154-161 record. Over the next 17 games, Mississippi State played teams with a combined 166-126 record.

 

Most of those opponents are teams from the SEC, the best, deepest and most competitive baseball conference in the nation. Entering this past week with a 7-7 record is certainly no disgrace. Heck, Florida entered the week at 5-11 and LSU entered it at 6-9 and for all the criticism surrounding those programs and their coaches, those are still two outstanding teams capable of making noise in May and June.

 

The Bulldogs also took a turn for the worse when injuries began to limit the availability and productivity of first baseman Brad Jones and left fielder Andy Rice. They're not likely to be healthy the remainder of the season. The Bulldogs took another turn in the wrong direction when center fielder Joseph Hunter and third baseman Michael Rutledge fell into batting slumps.

 

Still, Polk is convinced this team can get back on track and finish strong. The Bulldogs insist it will happen. As co-captain Thomas Berkery told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, "We've got it in us."

 

"If I knew Rice and Jones were going to be healthy, yeah," Polk told the Clarion-Ledger. "We've always been a good second-half ballclub. I think we can finish with 37 or 38 wins."

 

That confidence appeared to justified on Saturday. After rain on Friday forced Mississippi State and Arkansas to play a double header on Saturday and the Razorbacks won the first game 6-2, the Bulldogs came back and won the second game 9-8 when Brian LaNinfa hit a two-run walk-off homer in the ninth inning.           "Walk-off home runs work magic," said pitcher Justin Pigott. "This is huge. We knew we were coming back. And with that home run? You got to be fired up."

 

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Richard Scott is a Birmingham based sports writer, author and featured columnist in Tiger Rag. Reach him at RScottfree@aol.com.


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