Vols Plug Leak, Aim For Other QBs

News that Tennessee is no longer actively pursuing Charlotte Independence All-American quarterback Chris Leak came like a bolt out of the blue, but it erupted from a storm that's been brewing for weeks.

The relationship between QB and UT has been on the decline for some time. Leak's reluctance to commit verbally to the Vols after assuring Tennessee's staff he was Big Orange bound for about a year strained matters.

The stress increased when Leak made an unscheduled visit to Tennessee's campus in August at the same time California's Kyle Wright was making an unofficial visit to Knoxville. Wright is rated the nation's No. 1 quarterback by The Insiders while Leak is rated No. 2.

Although the impromptu pop-in could be simply explained as Leak having extra time and an interest in seeing his brother C.J., who is a backup signal caller at Tennessee, it had the appearance of one staking his claim, or marking his territory (If the metaphor fits, raise it.)

Things began to fracture after Leak complained publicly, via a diary he's writing for ESPN.com, about Tennessee giving his brother the hook against Georgia after just six downs in two series.

Leak's version of events is that UT's coaches had been assuring him leading up to the game in Athens, that C.J. was looking good in practice and they expected him to take most of the snaps against the Bulldogs.

Others close to the situation viewed it as a quasi extortion tactic designed to strong arm more playing time for C.J. Although the truth is likely somewhere between these divergent takes, trust between the parties took a direct hit.

A marriage that was some three years in the making splintered after Leak began to write about his exciting recruiting visits to Florida and Texas while continually downgrading Tennessee's status as his leader. After a visit to Austin, Texas, last weekend Leak made it clear that his options were wide open.

However, there are indications that Tennessee had requested Leak drop it from consideration as long as two weeks ago. Apparently the staff felt it would look better if the word of their mutual loss of interest came from Leak. When Leak didn't make an announcement, the Vols hand was forced.

Complicating matters was C.J.'s woeful play during practices, the spring game and the brief game action he has seen this season. His inability to nail down the No. 2 job behind Casey Clausen placed pressure on the equation that intensified during the starter's downtime due to injuries.

Finally, Curtis Leak, Chris and C.J's father, has assumed an extremely active role in orchestrating his sons recruiting and has been outspoken regarding their futures. He wasn't shy about saying Chris was going to Tennessee in the recent past, nor did he hide his disappointment about C.J.'s slow progress toward the starting job.

C.J. transferred to Tennessee from Wake Forest almost two years ago after suffering a severe knee injury from which he was slow to recover. There was considerable speculation at the time that UT made a scholarship available in order to improve its chances with Chris.

But in reality,Tennessee needed a quarterback with talent and experience to develop as a backup to Clausen, who was UT's only scholarship signal caller after A.J. Suggs transferred to Georgia Tech and Joey Mathews decided not to stay for his senior season. Another true freshman, Jon Rattay, also transferred to Arizona State after competing for the quarterback's job in the spring of 2000. True freshman C.J. Fayton helped fill the gap, but was later switched to wide receiver.

C.J. came in with solid credentials and was a highly sought after quarterback his senior year. The Vols had pursued him that season, but apparently backed off after committing Chris Simms and A.J. Suggs. By the way, after C.J. signed with Wake Forest in 1999, Chris gave the Demon Deacons a verbal commitment as an eighth grader. He later lost interest in Wake Forest.

Attempts to reach Chris or his father were unsuccessful and UT's coaching staff is prohibited from discussing any prospect publicly. Consequently, it remains unclear if Tennessee's statement that it is no longer recruiting Leak means it has rescinded the scholarship offer.

However, the Vols have clearly moved on in their pursuit of quarterback prospects. Highest on that list is LaMarcus Russell of Williamson High School in Mobile, Ala. who is rated No. 3 nationally. Russell, 6-5, 220, 4.7, was an unofficial visitor for the Miami game and often draws comparisons to Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich. He is also considering Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU and Notre Dame.

Tennessee is also involved with Richard Kovalcheck, 6-3, 215, of St. Augustine High School in San Diego, ranked No. 11 in the nation. Washington is the chief competition for Kovalcheck who is also looking at California, Notre Dame and Colorado.

Some other QB prospects the Vols are known to have an interest in are Pat Carter 6-3, 170, 4.65, of Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg, Fla., Cliff Davis, 6-5, 215, 4.8, of Europa, Miss., and Zach Richardson, 6-5, 210, 4.8, of Marietta, Ga. Also recently emerging as a candidate for a UT scholarship is Bo Hardegree, 6-4, 185, 4.9, of Jackson Central-Merry High School in Jackson, Tenn. Hardegree, a quarterback, is the son of Jackson-Central head coach Jim Hardegree and the teammate of blue chip linebacker Daniel Brooks.

The Vols are hoping to sign two quarterbacks in their Class of 2003, but the player rated highest of all the prospects they have pursued will, apparently, not be a part of that group.

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