Many teams begin spring practice sessions with some stretching. At Florida this year the warmups resemble a WWE match. "It's a pretty intense scene," says quarterback Chris Leak of the circle-of-life drill. New coach Urban Meyer calls out players two at a time and, surrounded by teammates cheering raucously, they push and grapple with each other until someone goes down. "Luckily," adds Leak, "I haven't been called out yet."
Which is not to say that he hasn't been challenged in other ways during what the Gators describe as the toughest spring in memory. The centerpiece of the complex, option-heavy offense that Meyer brought with him from Utah, Leak describes the past couple of months as a dizzying rotation of Utah game-tape study, extended throwing drills and rapid-fire review sessions with Meyer or offensive coordinator Dan Mullen. "[Meyer] is a man who wants perfection, and that makes you want perfection," says Leak, a junior. "When we're not on the field or in class, I'm in the coaches' offices."
The prospect of this coach-QB collaboration has had Gators fans salivating since October, when Ron Zook was fired after going 20--13 in 21/2 seasons. At the time, the 40-year-old Meyer was in the midst of leading Utah to a 12--0 record and the No. 4 national ranking, which solidified his reputation as one of football's sharpest young minds. His choice of Florida over Notre Dame was inspired in no small part by the opportunity to work with athletes like Leak, who threw for a combined 5,632 yards and 45 touchdowns in his first two seasons as a Gator. "He's an excellent, experienced young quarterback," says Meyer. "And while people kept telling me he wasn't mobile enough for my offense, I'd seen enough to know they were wrong."
When the two first sat down together over the winter, Meyer told Leak that he planned to build the offense around the passer's talents. "Coming from a guy who has had his success," says Leak, "that makes a quarterback feel pretty great."
The niceties all but ended there. During the first of Meyer's grueling, pinball-paced prac-tices, the coach didn't hear a peep from Leak--and was not happy about that. "I saw a bunch of guys walking around and no general," says Meyer. "I pulled Chris aside and said, 'You want to lead by example? That's fine. You're just not going to be my quarterback.'"
The message got through. Soon, says senior center Mike Degory, "Chris was getting in guys' faces when they were slacking, patting their backs when they did well."
Next, Meyer addressed his quarterback's throwing technique. While Leak's delivery might have been suitable for Zook's more traditional spread offense, he seemed to be having trouble with the lightning-quick passes that are required with the option reads in Meyer's system. After first considering ways to tweak Leak's release, Meyer learned that the quarterback was slowing down his decision-making process in order to think through each play he was learning. "Alex Smith was the same way at first," says Meyer of the former Utah quarterback and 2004 Heisman finalist. "They're intelligent guys who can overanalyze. So around the fifth spring practice I told Chris to just let it rip and not worry where the ball was going."
In the team's first spring scrimmage, on March 26, Leak connected on 6 of 11 passes, including a 65-yard bomb to receiver Chad Jackson for a touchdown. Florida's next practice, two days later, proved to be a turning point for the offense. "Chris was suddenly moving comfortably and throwing more confidently," says Meyer. "I can't wait to see how he's developed after we've worked together all spring."
The rest of the SEC isn't so eager to find out. ‚ñ†
The last five Heisman Trophy winners have been quarterbacks. Along with Florida junior Chris Leak, these returning passers figure to have the best chance of extending that streak.
Matt Leinart, Sr., USC
Mentor Norm Chow may have left for the NFL, but the 2004 Heisman winner still benefits from the nation's most talented supporting cast.
Vince Young, Jr., Texas
The Rose Bowl MVP (he ran for four scores and threw for one) will play behind four returning starters on the offensive line.
Drew Tate, Jr., Iowa
His 2,786 passing yards and 62.1% completion rate helped Iowa go 10--2 despite the nation's second-worst rushing attack.
Reggie McNeal, Sr., Texas A&M
He finally came of age last season, setting school records with 718 rushing yards by a quarterback and 2,791 passing yards.