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January 23, 2007

South notes: Leak still proving self

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MOBILE, Ala. Chris Leak enters the next stage of his career with one major advantage over his peers.

After all the scrutiny he faced in four years as Florida's starting quarterback, Leak should be ready for whatever poking and prodding he encounters in the months leading up to the NFL Draft.

"I think every player goes through adversity at some point in his career," Leak said as he prepared to lead the North team in Saturday's Senior Bowl. "It shows you the character of a guy if you're able to bounce back, keep fighting and working hard."

Few quarterbacks faced as much adversity as Leak.

Leak arrived at Florida as one of the most highly touted prospects in school history after leading Charlotte (N.C.) Independence High to three consecutive state titles.

He endured a pair of five-loss seasons and the firing of former Gators coach Ron Zook in his first two years at Florida. He then had an awkward junior season adapting to new Florida coach Urban Meyer's offense, a scheme designed for quarterbacks more mobile than Leak.

Leak spent his senior year sharing quarterback responsibilities with true freshman Tim Tebow, whose home-state roots and aggressive running style made him an immediate fan favorite.

He accepted all those burdens without complaint and capped his college career by leading Florida to its second national title in school history. Leak graduated as Florida's career leader in passing yards (11,213), completions (895) and attempts (1,458).

"He's a class act," Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden said.

Leak now must prove himself all over again.

Although the last four years have provided NFL scouts with a testament of Leak's character and leadership, doubts remain about whether this 6-foot senior has the size or arm strength to run an NFL offense.

"He could go in the first day if he has a big week here (and) if somebody really likes him in their offense," said Frank Coyle of draftinsiders.com. "This is where a coach comes in on these decisions. Does a coach feel he can come in and be the guy to fit in their offense and do what he needs to do? Leak doesn't have the mobility that a (Troy) Smith does, but he throws a nice ball. He's got a good arm; he doesn't have a great arm.

"What he does here this week and how he finishes in the Combine will determine if he goes in the first day. I think he's a borderline top 100 kid."

Leak arrived in Mobile with the same matter-of-fact approach that worked so well for him in college.

"I've always been the type of person to stay focused on making sure I'm prepared for the game and my teammates are prepared," Leak said. "That's how I've done it the entire season. This is a game week. It's a very important week of practice we have to have. (I'm) just taking it day by day and making sure the guys around me are ready to go."

He already has made an impression on his new coach.

San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Nolan, who is coaching the South squad that includes Leak, said the former Gators star might have enough lower-body strength to compensate for his lack of height.

Nolan noted that Leak's power in the lower-body area might allow him to stay in the pocket and avoid one-handed tackles from defensive linemen.

"He's got my attention from the standpoint that he's articulate, he's bright (and) he commands the huddle well," Nolan said. "I think he's done a good job in the pocket. He's got good presence in the pocket."

Nolan said Leak's future success could depend on how well he sees the field. He indicated that smaller quarterbacks usually must have outstanding vision to succeed in the NFL.

"Drew Brees is a good example," Nolan said. "Drew's got outstanding vision. A shorter-statured guy who's about 6 foot, if he's got good vision, he can find the guys and has an understanding of where they're going to show up, they'll typically be successful."

At least one person at the Senior Bowl believes Leak has what it takes to make it at the next level.

Playing alongside him the last four years has convinced Gators wide receiver Dallas Baker that Leak has the intangibles to succeed in the pros.

"Yeah, he's short and you may hear a couple of negative things about him, but I think Chris is a great quarterback," Baker said. "He has that drive that failure isn't acceptable. Really, that's what you need."

That's what got Leak this far.

Texas offensive lineman Justin Blalock and Tennessee offensive lineman Arron Sears still don't know what position they'll be playing in the NFL.

Blalock earned Rivals.com first-team All-America honors at guard this season while alternating between that position and tackle. He primarily played tackle in Tuesday's practice, though he also lined up at guard in some one-on-one drills.

"I'm just looking to contribute wherever I can," Blalock said. "If a team needs a tackle, I'll play tackle. If a team needs a guard, I'll play guard. It's really that simple."

Sears played just about every position on Tennessee's offensive line during his career, but he found a home at left tackle this season and earned Rivals.com third-team All-American honors. Sears lined up at guard Tuesday and said teams have indicated he might play either position next fall.

"I love playing offensive tackle, but if I have to move inside to guard, I wouldn't have a problem," Sears said. "I love the challenge (at tackle) of being out on the edge with smaller and quicker guys."

The South team's defense also features a guy whose position remains uncertain.

Florida defensive lineman Ray McDonald alternated between end and tackle during his college career. McDonald believes he could play either spot in the NFL.

"I see myself as both," McDonald said. "If they want me to gain weight and get up to 290 or 300, I can play tackle. If they want me to stay at 280, I'll stay at end. It's not a big issue with me. I just feel I'm a natural d-lineman. I can play any of them."

Louisiana State wide receiver Dwayne Bowe made the best catch of the day when he managed to make a grab despite being well-covered by Texas safety Michael Griffin.

Bowe reached over Griffin, tapped the ball skyward, then made the catch as he was falling backward.

Although the LSU senior made several nice catches during the South practice, that play against Griffin may have boosted his stock the most. Bowe admitted afterward that he heard some "oohs" and "ahhs" after making the catch.

Auburn wide receiver Courtney Taylor went flying into the hedges that surround the field at Ladd-Peebles Stadium trying to track down a pass during 7-on-7 drills.

Taylor was stuck briefly, and a teammate on the South squad helped fish him out.

"I said, 'Don't rush to me, I'm all right,' " Taylor said. "I'm from the SEC. We play tough."

Taylor felt like he acquitted himself well.

"I had a pretty good day, and I'm gaining more confidence just in my routes and in knowing the offense," Taylor said.

He laughed about his brush with the hedges.

"Hey, that's just me," Taylor said. "I'm always gonna try to make a play."

San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Norv Turner is having fun coaching the South squad along with the rest of the 49ers staff.

"This is an all-star game, so there are 25 guys who catch your eye on every play," Turner said.

Who caught Turner's eye during the South practice on Tuesday?

"I've spent most of my time with the quarterbacks, watching them and trying to help them learn the offense," Turner said. "I think all three of them (Leak, Kevin Kolb of Houston and Jordan Palmer of UTEP) are good players."

Turner also had high praise for a local favorite, Alabama running back Kenneth Darby.

"He's a versatile, good-looking back," Turner said.

One AFC assistant coach said he was very impressed with the punters and kickers for both squads.

"They've all been impressive and they're all good-character guys," the assistant said.

The South specialists are Arizona kicker Nick Folk and Baylor punter Daniel Sepulveda.

The assistant coach said not to put too much stock into the return game here.

"It's kind of hard to get a feel for that here," he said. "They don't spend that much time on special teams, and it's tough for the guys to mesh. It's possible somebody could stand out, but you're more looking at the guys who have a body of work as return guys."

Click here for more Rivals.com coverage of the Senior Bowl.



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