Will UT's Offense Spring a Leak?

It amounts to little more than an intrasquad exhibition but there's something for everyone in a spring football game. Any good news comes with corresponding bad news, every shining accomplishment is accompanied by glaring failure so that both optimists and pessimists are equally emboldened to engage in the endless debate that precedes every season in Big Orange Country.

There's also plenty of grist for gridiron realists, analysts and prognosticators to grind on during an offseason overflowing with angst and anticipation. The trick is to remember all that glitters isn't gold and beneath the tarnish there is often treasure.

Remember the spring game in 2002 featured only one touchdown and it was scored by defensive back Shannon Benton on a fumble recovery. Keldrick Williams impressed with his ability to run inside the tackles and Wesley Holmes made five tackles behind the line of scrimmage. What has this trio done since? Where are they now? Hint: None of the three are still at Tennessee.

Conversely, a player that didn't impress that same day was junior college transfer defensive back Gibril Wilson, who appeared lost in coverage at various points of the spring contest. Wilson's struggles would continue into the fall of 2003 before he emerged by midseason as a solid starter. Last season he was Tennessee's best DB and will likely be the first Vol taken in this week's NFL Draft.

So while the Orange and White Game can shed some light on players that haven't had much in the way of playing time before, it is hardly a precursor to success or failure come fall.

That paradox underscores why it would be overly optimistic to think C.J. Leak's 10-of-15, 186-yard performance is indicative of a corner turned in the sixth year senior's checkered career. Most of the passes he threw Saturday were of the short variety and most of the yards were gained after the catch. The mere act of taking daily repetitions reinforced with constant critiquing should help improve Leak's game but the defense he faced Saturday was vanilla favored and wrapped in brown paper. SEC opponents will certainly test him with a variety of spicy packages and throw everything at him besides the kitchen sink.

Whether Leak can take the heat and keep on clicking is a question better answered on another day, but this much we do know: in four seasons — beginning at Wake Forest in 1999 and including a redshirt season in 2001 — Leak has started four games, completing 47 of 110 passes for 521 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. That's a completion rate of 43 percent, an average of 11 yards per completion with one touchdown for every 55 attempts compared to an interception every 36 attempts.

As a true freshman, Casey Clausen completed 121 of 194 passes (64.2 percent) for 1473 yards, 15 touchdowns and six interceptions, while Peyton Manning completed 89 of 144 (61.8 percent) for 1141 yards as a rookie. In his first season as a starter, Heath Shuler completed 58 percent of his passes while predecessors Andy Kelly and Jeff Francis completed 59 percent and 64.4 percent their first seasons. In fact, during Fulmer's era as head coach the average percent of passes completed by Tennessee's starters was 60.8 percent. In short, it's an offensive system designed to control the ball with a balanced attack of the power run and the high-percentage pass made possible by home run threats. Additionally, accuracy in a passer is usually evident early in a career as opposed to a trait that emerges down the line.

There's no doubt Leak has improved since his first public appearance as a Vol in the 2002 spring game. On that sun-splashed April day he was confused, erratic and wild high. This writer once described Leak as the one man America could send to Iraq who was guaranteed to overthrow Saddam Hussein. With a fully rehabilitated knee, two years in UT's system and a full spring practice as the Vols No. 1 signal caller under his belt, Leak looks better but he doesn't appear ready for prime time, particularly before a packed Neyland Stadium or a hostile crowd encircling the hedges in Athens, Ga.

With a strong running game Leak might be able to up his completion rate but not by 20 points and not against the caliber of competition Tennessee plays. His lack of accuracy will allow defenses to crowd the line against the run and pressure the pocket with impunity. In summary, teams will force Leak to pass and wait for him to wilt.

The question is, with Florida second on the 2004 schedule, how long can Tennessee wait before naming his replacement?

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