Florida Preview: Player to Watch--Chris Leak

The signs that Chris Leak is maturing are numerous, and that's bad news for Florida opponents.

Following a fantastic freshman season that included a 6-3 record as a starting quarterback last season, Leak wasn't content to simply return to the same form at which he concluded the 2003 season. He wanted to keep improving. The brother of Tennessee's C.J. Leak spent the off months working at getting better.

Conditioning, film watching, perfecting his passing skills'all were part of the summer regimen. Apparently, the devotion to duty has paid off. Eager to get started after the Gators' scheduled season opener was cancelled due to Hurricane Frances striking Florida, Leak enjoyed a terrific debut to 2004, passing for 244 yards and three touchdowns against Eastern Michigan on a rainy Saturday afternoon last week.

Now an established leader, Leak hopes for similar performances as the Southeastern Conference portion of the schedule begins with Tennessee Saturday.

"The quarterback is like the coach on the field," Leak said. "As soon as the coach calls in the play, you are the coach. You are the general on the field and you have to lead your team down the field and score. That's what the quarterback does. We know that comes with the role. That's why we chose to play quarterback."

That leadership role extends beyond just game day. Leak knows he must serve as a source of advice and encouragement for the Gators offensive players, particularly the younger ones.

"The coaches do a great job of keeping us organized, and I try to help that along by talking to the guys," Leak said. "Of course guys are going to make mistakes in practice. That's why we practice. You have to encourage guys to do the right thing. You have to work with them, no matter how long it takes. That's what a leader does. He sticks with the players and makes sure they get it right."

The leader also provides an example of how things should be done. Leak has done so by spending the necessary extra time to make sure his game constantly improves. A big part of improvement is getting a better handle on defensive schemes, which Leak says he has done in the film room.

"I can go watch film at eight or nine o'clock if I want to," Leak said. "Just to have that is a big advantage. It lets you get better. For a while I was coming down to watch every weekend. Practice would be in the morning and I was watching film until the evening. Most of the guys would be gone except for the guys who do the film breakdown. I got to know them real well from staying there late all the time."

Work in the weight room has also benefited Leak.

"I've gotten a little bigger, stronger and faster," he said. "I'm more toned, but I try to stay the same weight."

Aiding Leak in his quest to lead Florida to an SEC title is the return of some quality skill players. Top rushers Ciatrick Fason (105 yards on Saturday) and DeShawn Wynn are back, as are receivers Dallas Baker and O.J. Small (six catches for 99 yards on Saturday). Leak and his supporting cast now appear to be very comfortable with each other.

"The guys know the system better because they have a year under their belts," Leak said. "Things are going to run a lot more smoothly, like the communication on the field. The main thing we are trying to do is attack the defense. We are going to try to keep the tempo going, stay on the run, and score as many points as possible."

Florida head coach Ron Zook is pleased with the progress made by his talented quarterback.

"Chris is a young man with a good work ethic," he said. "Besides his God-given ability to throw the football, he has a lot of poise. He is able to regroup and gain his composure. I have seen players in the NFL that when something goes bad it takes them a while to regroup. His ability to regain his composure is one of his greatest assets."

With a year of valuable experience to draw on, Leak should compile much better numbers this season, according to Florida offensive coordinator Larry Fedora.

"He did a lot more than I expected last fall, to be honest with you," Fedora said. "There's no telling how far he'll go and how much he's improved since the end of last season to now. We're excited to find out. He'll make tremendous strides each day, I imagine."

Leak says he still has a healthy relationship with quarterbacks coach Ed Zaunbrecher, who was replaced as offensive coordinator by Fedora this season.

"Nothing has changed between us," Leak said. "We watch film, go over different coverages. He knows so much about coverages.I try to soak up as much as I can from him. His intensity, as far as coaching me, has never changed."

Able to discuss Florida's goals without sounding cocky, Leak talks about high expectations for the Gators.

"Florida's expectations are always to win the national title and win the SEC," he said. "This year is no different. Those are going to be our goals every year, no matter what. That's what Florida is all about. That's where our minds are right now."

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