Coed dorms. Study groups at 4 a.m. Pitching in with community
projects. Weekday parties in the student center.... Today's
colleges are complex, highly active petri dishes of academic and
social activity.... 30.2 percent of freshmen say they are
"frequently overwhelmed" by all they have to do. --from "Life on
Campus," a reading in the course First-Year Florida
Few football players of any age could have been prepared for what
awaited Chris Leak in Kentucky's Commonwealth Stadium on Sept.
27. Thumping rock music competed with the din of 70,579 fans,
most of whom were raring to see Florida, the SEC's public enemy
No. 1, slip below .500 for the first time since 1992. As a
poster-board sign in the upper deck--ZOOK SPRINGS A LEAK, CROCS
GET BEACHED--indicated, the masses were hoping that the Gators'
18-year-old quarterback, in his first college start, would fall
on his face.
The freshman didn't flinch. Not when he jogged onto the field to
a chorus of boos. Not when he suffered his third sack, nor even
when the Wildcats widened their lead to 21-3 late in the third
quarter. In the game's final 15 minutes, the youngest starting
quarterback in major-college football threw two touchdown passes
to lead Florida to a 24-21 win, the Gators' biggest comeback ever
on the road.
"A lot of freshmen come in and are just so excited that they lose
focus," says Florida offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher. "For
Chris, it's just not new."
Robotic. Machinelike. Automatic. These are the words teammates
and reporters use to describe Leak, whose first year of college
has posed challenges slightly more daunting than late-night study
sessions and weekday mixers. He is methodical in everything from
game preparation (he scrutinizes more film in a week than Ebert
and Roeper combined) to weekly interview sessions, in which he
fields reporters' questions with polite cliches ("giving 100
percent" is a favorite) that convey not so much reticence as a
disinclination to think outside the tackle box. "Chris simply
does not let any outside influences affect what he does or says,"
says Zaunbrecher. "He has a plan, and he does not stray from it."
Gone are the days when a player's first year was devoted to
developing friendships, study habits and quadriceps. As more high
school programs mimic college offensive schemes and
weight-training regimens, more kids are coming to campus ready to
play right away. And when they go so far as to skip the prom and
other high school rites of spring to enroll in college and begin
practicing with the team, they are welcomed. Almost every coach
in the country has responded to the NCAA's 85-scholarship limit
by suiting up more freshmen--from South Carolina's Lou Holtz, who
has started first-year running back Demetris Summers in seven of
the Gamecocks' 10 games, to USC's Pete Carroll, whose
freshman-laden two-deep chart includes quarterback John David
Booty, believed to be the first high schooler to skip his senior
year (he graduated early) to get a jump on Division I football.
Florida coach Ron Zook's 2003 recruiting class rivaled Carroll's
as the nation's best, and those youngsters are a big reason the
Gators are winning. After a slow start, Florida (7-3) heads into
Saturday's game at South Carolina neck and neck with Georgia and
Tennessee in the SEC East. Five true freshmen have played key
roles, including linebacker Channing Crowder, who has led the
team in tackles in each of the last three games; punter Eric
Wilbur, who's second in the SEC with a 45.0-yard average; and the
Ferrari among the fleet, Leak, the 2002 USA Today high school
offensive player of the year. His 60.1% completion rate is the
best among the six true freshmen who've started in Division I-A
Quarterbacking is the final frontier for first-year collegians:
Even Zook waited until the fifth game to give Leak his first
start, ahead of sophomore Ingle Martin. The youngster has since
led Florida to wins over LSU, Arkansas and Georgia, becoming the
first freshman quarterback in school history to defeat three
ranked opponents in consecutive games. Leak shrugs off his
mounting achievements. "Everybody has to start someday," he says.
"I just want to give 100 percent in every game."
To understand how this teenager came to run the Gators' offense
and why he's so underwhelmed by the responsibility, you'd have to
visit Leak's hometown of Charlotte. Perhaps you'd see a copy of
The Charlotte Observer, in which Leak's development at Florida
makes regular headlines, or turn on the radio to hear the sports
talk guys breaking down Leak's latest performance. "In these
parts," says Rick Emert, chairman of the North Carolina Youth
Football League, "every day is Chris Leak day."
Emert inherited his NCYFL post in 1998 from the organization's
founder, Curtis Leak, a former college wideout drafted by the
Green Bay Packers in the 11th round in 1976. It was in the NCYFL,
which has surpassed Pop Warner as the main feeder league for area
high schools, that Curtis's two sons, C.J., now a senior backup
at Tennessee, and Chris, developed as quarterbacks.
By age five Chris was cupping the laces just like his big
brother--"that's always been Chris's best quality, how observant
he is," says C.J., 22--and throwing tidy spirals. At nine Chris
entered the league's punt, pass and kick contest. When his age
group was called, Chris stepped up first and chucked the ball 42
yards. He won by default: No one wanted to go next.
When Penn State's Joe Paterno and Florida State's Bobby Bowden
paid recruiting visits to C.J., Chris sat next to his brother and
listened to the pitches. And when Wake Forest signed C.J. in '99,
the school also offered a scholarship to Chris, who was then an
eighth-grader. Soon, though, Chris had more offers than he knew
what to do with: He started all four years at Independence High,
finishing with 185 TD passes, a national high school record, and
was the most highly sought recruit in the country.
When Curtis received a FedExed memo from Zook outlining how he
intended to use Chris in the Gators' spread offense, the Leaks
decided that Gainesville was Chris's best shot to play
immediately. (His commitment announcement, made at halftime of
the 2003 high school All-American Bowl, was televised
nationally.) He didn't have enough credits to graduate from high
school early and enroll at Florida last spring, but at his own
expense he regularly hopped flights to Gainesville, sitting in on
meetings and standing next to huddles in his street clothes at
spring practice to study the Gators' offense up close. "That was
all Chris," says Curtis. "He knew that if he was going to start,
he would have to understand the game plan and get to know the
Leak's dedication is becoming Gators lore. One story describes
how this summer a fetching female student came by the football
dorm to visit Florida's new quarterback. Leak, who was engrossed
in game tape, made it clear he was otherwise occupied. His
brother's response didn't surprise C.J. "That's Chris," he says.
"Make fun all you want, but he's doing something right."
Leak's development this season has coincided with his team's.
Against Miami he threw an interception in the final minute, which
killed Florida's last chance. Eight weeks later against Georgia,
with the game tied at 13 with 3:49 to play, Leak connected with
three receivers during a 66-yard drive that set up the winning
field goal. Teammates are even beginning to see the lighter side
of Leak, the kid who makes goofy faces in team meetings and
unwinds by watching morning cartoons. "Chris isn't as uptight as
he used to be," says freshman receiver Andre Caldwell. "He's
starting to adjust to college life and letting his confidence
That was evident after last Saturday's 35-17 win over Vanderbilt,
in which Leak threw for 179 yards and rushed for a TD. Zook
described Leak's nearly flawless first half as "the sharpest
Chris has looked this year." When pressed about two second-half
interceptions, the freshman didn't hang his head or talk about
what could have been. "I'm just going to keep on learning," he
said, "and keep giving 100 percent."
has a plan, and he does not stray from it."