FOOTBALL: USC's Strength Is Florida's Promise

FOOTBALL: USC's Strength Is Florida's Promise

The Florida Gators and Chris Leak find themselves in a place similar to where the USC Trojans and Matt Leinart found themselves at the beginning of the 2003 season.

Going into 2003, Leinart was good enough to be tabbed the successor to Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Carson Palmer. Yet, at the same time, there were legitimate doubts about the signal caller's ability to stand up to the pressure and actually deliver the goods on gameday. With Norm Chow, however, Leinart had good coaching that enabled him to grow into a first-rate passer and leader whose mix of intangibles and on-field skills catapulted USC to the top of the sport. Leinart currently sits atop the college football world largely because of a football IQ gained under Chow's tutelage.

Transfer those dynamics to Florida's upcoming season, and you should be able to notice some interesting parallels.

Chris Leak's first two seasons in Gainesville have shown just how good the quarterback can be, good enough to be tabbed the successor to a man who should have won the Heisman, Rex Grossman. Yet, at the same time, these past two years have given critics due cause to raise --- perhaps, perpetuate --- doubts about Florida's signal caller and his ability to grow into a first-rate passer in addition to being the kind of leader he's been for his teammates since he first stepped onto the Gainesville campus.

But why do these doubts nip at Chris Leak's heels? Because this quality kid has not received the kind of coaching, the level of technical football expertise under Ron Zook and Ed Zaunbrecher, that Leinart received in Pete Carroll's program under Norm Chow. Reason for optimism runs so high for the Gator Nation this year because Meyer's innovative offense and attention to football detail offer Leak the chance to be a standout player in addition to a standout leader. Improved coaching can catapult Cool Hand Leak to the highest reaches of college football... and the Gators into places not experienced since the mid-1990s, when another great quarterback by the name of Danny Wuerffel blended all the intangibles with a considerable package of physical talents and skills.

One can see, then, that the links between Matt Leinart in 2003 and Chris Leak in 2005 are as fascinating as they are significant. Improved coaching offers Florida a chance to make a true superstar out of Leak; after all, it has already transformed Matt Leinart's life and career at USC.

But beyond that comparison between a younger Leinart then and Chris Leak now, an even more intriguing question exists heading into the 2005 season: with Norm Chow's departure to the NFL, will Leinart's performance suffer, and with it, the national title hopes of the Men of Troy? To phrase this question another way, will Leinart be hurt by second-rate coaching and coordinating in his senior season, much as Leak was crippled by inferior mentoring and play-calling in his freshman and sophomore campaigns? After all, if Grossman struggled mightily in his one season without Steve Spurrier after two prolific years under center, couldn't Leinart experience the same dropoff without Chow?

Those are questions worth asking, but the answer is likely to be no.

A big reason is that Leinart's made this march to the national championship once before. Grossman, as a point of comparison, never made that step. There's no substitute for experience, and the depth of Leinart's experience will keep him in good stead this season.

A second huge reason why Leinart isn't likely to experience a noticeable decline in his level of play is Reggie Bush. With an impact player of that caliber to turn to, Leinart's job will be made substantially easier, as has been the case the previous two years in LA.

Reason number three is that Leinart's decision to return to college ball, even when a number-one draft spot was virtually assured him, speaks of a hunger for the college game that is virtually unheard of these days. Leinart's desire to return to USC says more than a little about the special nature of a college legend who wants to write still one more legendary chapter: two-time Heisman winner and three-time champion (if you followed the old AP poll, anyway). Rare people do rare things, and Leinart's the kind of individual who will make a bold run at another undefeated season. He might not make that goal, but he'll come close if he fails. To bet that USC will lose more than one game this year is a fool's wager, given that it would express considerable doubts about Matt Leinart. USC's quarterback is not one to be doubted.

But the fourth --- and most central --- reason why USC and Matt Leinart are likely to sustain their success in 2005 is also the subject of football discussion that Urban Meyer needs to pay careful attention to in this most interesting of seasons: offensive manageability.

Notice that the word "simplicity" was not used. "Manageability" is more appropriate, because Norm Chow offenses aren't really simple. Chow's offenses --- and USC surely won't deviate too much in terms of its structural and conceptual approach to offense this season; no need to change a good thing --- involve the use of many different formations and alignments in the attempt to create favorable matchups. However, these different formations are used selectively in the first 20-25 minutes of a game, and after halftime, Chow picks the formations and plays that are most likely to work. USC's collective modus operandi in 2003 and '04 was to poke and probe in the first one and a half quarters, gently searching for defensive tendencies and weaknesses that could be exploited in the second half. Chow never got too greedy in the early going, enabling Leinart to settle into the flow of the game with a manageable package of plays. Leinart didn't get buried with information or demands; he was given a manageable plan that was tweaked at halftime to fit in-game trends and team strengths that Chow maximized to the Trojans' advantage in the second half. In 2005, Leinart will still have manageable game plans, and there's no reason he won't continue to be a patient passer in addition to being a dynamic one. Leinart's combination of playmaking ability and ball security should once again emerge, and it's that ability to have high ratio of big plays to mistakes that defines championship quarterbacks and championship teams. Manageability is USC's great offensive strength and Matt Leinart --- being the leader and field general he is --- knows how to manage a ballgame. It's why the Trojans should be national champions again.

But USC's strength is also Florida's promise in 2005. What made Leinart great can make Chris Leak great as well, and it will be up to Urban Meyer and his offensive staff to allow this to happen.

The word "allow" is an intentionally used word here, because the temptation for Meyer --- given his success with Alex Smith at Utah --- will be to transform Leak into more of a double-threat quarterback, running him more on option plays toward the edges and generally increasing the scope of Leak's responsibilities. Meyer's system asks a lot of a quarterback, and yes, Leak is smart and poised enough to handle a bigger workload.

But the key realization to make is that Leak can't handle this workload immediately or all at once. Much as Chow would slowly spice up the USC playbook --- in individual games and in the course of a whole season --- Meyer will also have to increase Leak's load incrementally, in manageable amounts. Early in 2005, and especially against Tennessee, Meyer will need to keep the playbook somewhat simple, allowing Leak to have a comfort zone while slowly bringing him out of his shell. Meyer will face this constant tension in 2005: how much to fit his system to Leak, balanced against the need to allow Leak to grow into (or towards?) his system? The new Gator coach's ability to handle this tension, and to make the offense truly manageable for Leak, will determine just how successful Florida will ultimately be.

USC's best asset over the past two years-top-flight coaching-has enabled Matt Leinart to reach college football's mountaintop, and that base of coaching knowledge is so substantial that Leinart could well be self-sufficient and still victorious this year, even without Norm Chow. Chris Leak, on the other hand, didn't lack coaching in a year when he was coming off two glorious seasons under the tutelage of a master; he lacked guidance when his career was just getting started, so he wasn't able be the self-governing force that Leinart is poised to be this season.

But now that Leak seems to have the expertise that Leinart had when he began his USC career, the Gators have a chance to get the kind of quarterback play that wins championships... the championships USC won in 2003 and 2004, when a great football leader cultivated superb football instincts under the direction of a wise football mind. If he makes offense manageable for Chris Leak, Urban Meyer will prove to be the offensive tonic for Gator Football that Chow was for the Trojans when he joined Pete Carroll's staff.

The coaching USC has offered --- even though gone this year --- could still make Matt Leinart a champion again, given that the lessons he's learned have been absorbed into his bones and marrow. That same level of coaching, though, could now fill Chris Leak's mind with the wisdom of a new and ascendant champion.

USC's strength in 2003 and '04 could be Florida's promise of glory in 2005.

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