Former University of Utah quarterback Alex Smith ran Coach Urban Meyer's spread offense to such perfection last season that he led the Utes to an undefeated record, was a Heisman Trophy finalist and the No. 1 pick by the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL draft.
Smith's ability to thoroughly confuse opponents last season also helped Meyer land a seven-year, $14 million contract at the University of Florida, where he replaced fired coach Ron Zook. How well Gators quarterback Chris Leak adapts to Meyer's hybrid offense -- an option attack out of a spread formation, with the quarterback working out of the shotgun and running backs and wide receivers constantly going in motion -- will determine how well Meyer's system does in the rugged Southeastern Conference.
Meyer's offense can be more taxing on a quarterback than a 250-pound linebacker with 4.4-second speed. Meyer's complex system requires a quarterback to make multiple reads at the line of scrimmage before the football is snapped. Once the quarterback gets the snap from center, he must read the defensive end and then make a split-second decision -- whether to run with the football, hand it to a running back or shovel to a wide receiver in motion. The quarterback can audible out of any play by moving receivers and running backs to exploit gaps in the defense's alignment.
Leak's teammates and coaches will be counting on him to make the right decisions and the plays to make them successful.
"Once it hits the fan, you've got to look to someone and you can't look to the center," Meyer said. "God bless the center, but you've got to look to the quarterback."
Actually, under Zook and former offensive coordinators Ed Zaunbrecher and Larry Fedora, the offense did look to center Mike Degory for leadership. Plays were signaled in by coaches from the sideline, Leak relayed them to teammates and then Degory decided protection adjustments. Leak wasn't asked to do a lot in terms of directing the offense before the snap.
"The starting quarterback at Florida for two years never called a play in the huddle, never said a snap count, never changed protections, never did anything," Meyer said. "When you say that, it's kind of unbelievable. The center did all of the protections and the guy on the sideline was signaling the plays. They got to the huddle, [Leak] lifted his leg and played. We ask a lot more of him."
Leak's early results in Meyer's offense have been alarming. In a scrimmage last week, Leak completed only 3 of 9 passes for 68 yards and threw one interception, plus two more in situational drills. Meyer called the offense's performance "borderline pathetic."
Leak, 6 feet and 195 pounds, is four inches shorter and about 20 pounds lighter than Smith and wasn't asked to run much during Zook's two seasons as coach. Meyer said he will be cautious about getting his quarterback tackled too much on option plays. Leak's arm strength and pocket presence are unquestioned -- he threw for 5,632 yards and 45 touchdowns in his first two seasons. Only Rex Grossman, who threw an NCAA record 55 touchdowns in his first two years, threw more than Leak at the start of his career.
"They're similar," Meyer said of Leak and Smith. "Smith is the most dedicated human being for academics, living right and preparing himself. Chris Leak is from that same kind of mold. The kid works hard, has high character, comes from a great family. He's a junior and that's when the leadership comes out in a young man."
Leak isn't the only Florida player who will be asked to do things differently in Meyer's offense. The running backs will be asked to run out of an option formation instead of an I-formation. Leading rusher Ciatric Faison left for the NFL after his junior season, leaving DeShawn Wynn, Skyler Thornton and Markus Manson to share carries. Speedy wide receivers such as Dallas Baker, Andre Caldwell, Chad Jackson and Jemalle Cornelius will be asked to catch passes and run the football.
"I've never had that many wideouts that can go," Meyer said. "You've got to let those guys touch the ball eight to 10 to 14 times a game. The aces are going to touch the ball in this offense."
But it will be up to Leak to get them the ball.
"We need second-year production out of a first-year offense," Meyer said. "When is it going to become Chris Leak's offense? That hasn't happened yet. I'm hoping that happens before game week, obviously. That's what we're trying to get done. When that happens, watch out, because the Gators are going to get you."