- The Washington Times - Friday, September 16, 2005

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — By the time No. 5 Tennessee and No. 6 Florida finish their business tonight at the Swamp, one look at the state of Chris Leak’s uniform likely will make glancing at the scoreboard superfluous.

When Urban Meyer makes his SEC debut tonight in the game that has defined the league during the last dozen years, two closely related major questions surrounding the nation’s hottest coaching commodity and his talented Gators (2-0) will take a serious step toward resolution:

Will Meyer’s spread-option scheme work in the speed-centric SEC? And does Leak, Florida’s gifted junior quarterback, have the speed, quickness and endurance to run it?

There’s no arguing with Meyer’s results in his two-year stint at Utah, where he compiled a 22-2 record and directed quarterback Alex Smith and the Utes to consecutive Mountain West championships. He had a reputation-cinching 12-0 campaign in 2004 that concluded with a 35-7 trouncing of No. 19 Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl and a No. 4 ranking. Meyer’s teams averaged 437.5 yards of total offense and 37.0 points a game during those seasons, spreading out defenses with unconventional formations and then torturing them with a brand of misdirection-based, run-pass option football designed to capitalize on overzealous defensive pursuit.

That was then. Salt Lake City. Mountain West Conference: Air Force, BYU and New Mexico.

This is now. Gainesville. SEC: Tennessee, Georgia, LSU, Auburn, Alabama — a league in which an off-week means a date with 2-0 Vanderbilt or a trip to Columbia for a must-win meeting with Steve Spurrier at South Carolina.

In his four seasons as a coach at Bowling Green (2001-02) and Utah, Meyer never faced a team ranked higher than 19th. The Vols (1-0) are the first of five teams likely ranked higher than that on the Gators’ schedule this season.

He has never seen the kind of outlandish defensive speed that ranks as routine in the SEC — the kind of recovery speed that might turn space and a misdirection touchdown run in Salt Lake City into splatter and a 5-yard loss in Baton Rouge.

Now, there’s no question Meyer’s own arsenal of athleticism and speed increased significantly the moment he inherited a roster former Florida boss Ron Zook had stocked with blue-chip prepsters. But the potential pitfall with Meyer’s scheme is that it requires Leak, a 6-foot, 195-pounder no one ever has confused with Michael Vick, to carry the ball as an option-style quarterback.

“[Meyer’s] system is nothing new,” Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis said. “We used to call it the veer, but I haven’t seen it in practice since I’ve been in coaching. Most people don’t want their quarterback to get hit. That’s the thing that kind of threw that offense out the window a long time ago. They go five wide and chuck it around a good bit. But when they do run the option and run it as a true veer option, you put your quarterback at risk of being hit.”

Can the diminutive Leak survive a full game, much less a full season, running such a scheme against SEC foes?

Smith not only managed to stay healthy but to swipe the top slot in the NFL Draft running Meyer’s offense at Utah. But Smith is a 6-3, 215-pounder with deceptive speed and agility. Leak might run a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash … on a track … without pads … if the wind was howling at his back.

“Whether you’re dropping back and guys are rushing you and trying to hit you, or you’re running the ball and guys are trying to hit you, it’s really no different,” Leak said earlier this week. “It’s all football.”

The difference is that proper execution of the latter often requires the quarterback to absorb a hit, a notion that has Chavis and a Tennessee defensive front seven that is among the nation’s quickest and most talented salivating.

“Don’t think we’re going to be sitting back. That’s not our nature,” said Chavis, who has six of seven starters back from a front that ranked just behind Auburn and Georgia last season with 33 sacks and 58 tackles for loss. “What we believe in and what our guys believe in is pressure — pressure, pursue, punish.”

Through two games this season, Florida hasn’t been particularly successful keeping Leak clean whether he’s running or passing. Though the Gators rolled to easy victories over Wyoming (32-14) and Louisiana Tech (41-3), Florida’s offensive line already has given up seven sacks — 3.5 a game, ranking 10th worst among 119 Division I-A teams.

Leak, who leads the Gators in carries, has rushed 17 times for a total of only 5 yards. And those numbers came against two defensive units nobody would compare to a Tennessee stop squad that features three preseason All-Americans (defensive tackle Jesse Mahelona, linebacker Kevin Simon and cornerback Jason Allen).

“In week one, [Leak’s option play] was not very good. In week two, it was much better,” said Meyer, who has watched Leak keep on the option 12 times this season for 33 yards. “In week three, in order to beat a team like this, he’s going to have to be real good.”

And suffice it to say, Leak is going to have to be vertical, ambulatory and in one piece for four quarters for the Gators to triumph. There’s little doubt that if his offensive line gives him time and if he avoids absorbing a knockout shot while running the option, Leak has the receivers and the passing prowess to torment a relatively inexperienced Tennessee secondary.

But in this league, against this defense, running this scheme, with this quarterback, those could be fairly monumental qualifiers.

“A lot has been made about the scheme, but it’s more about whether Florida is ready to play Tennessee,” Meyer said. “It’s more about whether Chris Leak and our offensive line is ready to man-up against their front. We’ll be ready.”

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