Sunday, January 7, 2007

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Urban the Alchemist is one game from blending football’s most volatile dual dilemma into championship gold.

Few coaches have ever managed a two-quarterback offense as expertly as Florida’s Urban Meyer has this season with senior Chris Leak and freshman Tim Tebow. Even fewer can turn that delicate balance into a national title, which Florida (12-1) has a chance to do tomorrow against No. 1 Ohio State (12-0) in the BCS Championship game.

Conventional wisdom has always held rotating quarterbacks, at any level, as a formula for failure. Mix in Florida’s rabid fan base and a pair of diametric personalities, and Meyer might as easily have spent the season juggling nitroglycerin on the sidelines.

But Meyer said there hasn’t been a quarterback controversy in Gainesville this season, no animosity between senior slinger Leak and run-first freshman sensation Tebow.

“I think with the high-profile position of quarterback at the University of Florida, if you have [someone] other than a Chris Leak and a Tim Tebow — two high-character, unselfish people — I’m not sure we could have done what we’ve done,” Meyer said. “We had situations at running back where Tim had to play. He earned that right to play. Without two unselfish people, that would have been a problem.”

Perhaps the only thing the two players have in common is an outrageous background of high school acclaim.

Leak arrived at Florida in 2003 as arguably the most hyped freshman in the program’s history. A four-year starter at Independence High School in Charlotte, N.C., Leak led his team to three consecutive state championships (2000 to 2002), 46 straight victories and set a national high school record for career touchdown passes (185). He was viewed as the savior for a national power that a season earlier had lost its defining persona, coach Steve Spurrier, to the Washington Redskins.

Leak struggled when hurled into the merciless SEC fray as a freshman, setting the tone for a career defined by unreasonable expectations and extremely solid, if not exceptional, quarterback play. Florida fired coach Ron Zook during 2004 — with the Gators 20-13 in Zook’s two-plus seasons — and later hired Meyer and his spread option offense from Utah.

Leak, already tainted in the eyes of Gators faithful because of his connection to Zook, was suddenly asked to learn a new system. But the 6-foot, 207-pound junior pocket passer was uncomfortable in Meyer’s mobile-minded spread offense. Leak was predictably dinged early last season as the Gators finished 9-3 in Meyer’s debut.

Enter Tebow.

A home-schooled farm boy and preacher’s son from Jacksonville, Fla., Tebow had attained golden boy status well before he set foot in the Swamp. The 6-foot-3, 229-pound Tebow could run like a tailback and was tougher than a tractor. And unlike Leak, described as introverted or passionless, Tebow was a born leader — a player who brought his father’s pulpit brimstone onto the sideline and into the huddle.

Without a consistent tailback at his disposal, Meyer immediately added a “Tebow Package” to the Florida playbook. Tebow became the team’s short-yardage and spot quarterback, stealing snaps from Leak, a Heisman candidate. Tebow served notice he was more than just a gimmick against LSU, passing for two touchdowns and running for another in a 23-10 victory.

In home games following that performance, Florida fans chanted “Te-Bow … Te-Bow,” and students wore hand-altered shirts, scratching out the “Leak” in “Leak for Heisman” and replacing it with “Tebow.”

“I hear ‘Tebow for Heisman,’ but he doesn’t play but eight snaps a game,” Florida senior center Steve Rissler said before the Gators’ 17-16 victory over South Carolina on Nov. 11. “Chris has had a great career.”

Leak has thrown for more yards (11,000) than any Florida quarterback in history — more than Heisman Trophy winners Spurrier or Danny Wuerffel. He has thrown for nearly twice as many yards as his counterpart tomorrow — Heisman winner Troy Smith (5,685).

But Florida fans have made their choice. And to some extent, so has Meyer, who spoke volumes to those who could read between the lines when asked Friday what commodity he values most in a quarterback.

“The great quarterbacks have one thing in common,” Meyer said. “They can get you out of a bad play, and that involves running. [Former Utah quarterback] Alex Smith was very dangerous when you blitzed him, because he is so smart. He moved and created plays, and Tim is the same way. Chris has become much better at that and increased his value as a quarterback.”

But Leak doesn’t have Tebow’s ceiling, not in the eyes of Meyer or Gators fans. And don’t think he doesn’t feel that.

“He’s never complained a bit about it, because he’s a team guy,” Florida receiver Andre Caldwell said. “I have the utmost respect for Chris, because that part of [this season] can’t have been easy. … Quarterbacks are judged by titles — that’s their legacy. He got an SEC title, and hopefully, we can help him get a national title [tomorrow] night. It would be great if he could be remembered as a national champion at Florida.”

As always, Leak will start tomorrow, and Meyer will mix in snaps and series for Tebow, who led all Gators with seven rushing touchdowns and finished the season second in the nation among quarterbacks in yards a carry (5.4) behind West Virginia’s Pat White.

Will Leak press and make a costly miscue trying to secure his legacy with the future staring over his shoulder? Will Tebow make a freshman mistake at a crucial moment? Will Meyer once again find just the right balance in this delicate dynamic behind center?

The answers are now just a day away.

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