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Offensive graduate assistant Chris Leak won his first career start at Kentucky.

Wednesday September 25, 2013Lexington Lightning: Leak Recalls Memorable Comeback in First Start

Offensive graduate assistant Chris Leak won his first career start at Kentucky.

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The irony of the task ahead is not lost on Chris Leak.

The Florida Gators, with their starting quarterback Jeff Driskel out for the season with a broken leg, head north this weekend for a Southeastern Conference road date against Kentucky, where fourth-year junior Tyler Murphy will get the first start of his career at Commonwealth Stadium.

“It’s kind of deja vu for me,” Leak said. “But I think it’s a different situation.” 

As UF’s offensive graduate assistant, Leak has worked closely in helping Murphy prep for the experience that awaits in Lexington, be it the pressure, the anxiety or the blitzes the Wildcats surely will send at the Florida quarterback in his first road test. 

Probably even told a story or two of his own experience. 

Like that one nearly a decade ago to the day. Sept. 27, 2003. Against Kentucky. On the road. The first start of Leak’s career. 

And what a start it was. 

Make that, what a finish it was. 

Down by two touchdowns in the first half, then by 18 points heading into the fourth quarter, the Gators rallied to score the game’s final 21 points and stole a 24-21 victory -- completing the biggest road comeback in school history -- before a shell-shocked Bluegrass crowd that collectively believed its 17-game losing streak in the series finally had come to an end. 

That streak is now 26 in row. 

“Embrace adversity,” Leak said in thinking back to the night 10 years ago when he became just the fourth true freshman in Florida history to start a game at quarterback and the first since Jesse Palmer in 1997. “We took on adversity all season long that year.” 

UF-UK ’03 differed from the ’13 edition for a couple reasons relative to the Gators' starting quarterbacks. Leak, a true freshman at the time and top recruit at his position in the country the year before, had played in Florida’s four previous games, taking a series here and there from Ingle Martin. 

While Leak was a not a fourth-year player ingrained in the program, like Murphy, he believed he was going into the game very prepared, courtesy of Coach Ron Zook and offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher, and with the idea of playing his game and having fun. 

“I was on a mission from the start to get Florida back to prominence, with the help of the younger guys on the team and the seniors in that group,” Leak said. “I did exactly what my head coach told me to do: ‘Go out and be Chris Leak and play to the best of your ability.’ I felt like I did that that game.”

It didn’t start perfectly -- Leak threw a first-quarter interception into double coverage -- and the Gators trailed 21-3 entering the final period. But they were driving. 

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Leak threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Carlos Perez to cap a nine-play, 83-yard drive. The two-point conversion attempt failed and the Gators trailed 21-9. 

The UF defense forced a UK punt, but Leak threw an interception with nine minutes to go. 

Hello, adversity. Again.

But Florida’s defense held, the special teams got a 25-yard punt return from Keiwan Ratliff, and Leak had the ball again. 

“Anytime you have a young quarterback like myself at the time, your defense is going to have to pick up the slack. There is going to be growing pains on the offensive side of the ball,” Leak said. “But we stuck together. Offense, defense and special teams played very well.” 

Ratliff’s runback started UF at the Kentucky 28. The Gators were in big trouble on fourth-and-goal from the 10, but Leak hit Perez for the clutch score and the point-after made it 21-16 with 4:46 to go. 

Then senior Jared Lorenzen, the Wildcats' popular wide-bodied quarterback ("The Pillsbury Throwboy"), made a pivotal mistake that proved the difference against the Gators and his rookie counterpart. 

Under pressure from linebacker Channing Crowder, Lorenzen tried to spin out of a sack and make a throw, but instead passed the ball right to UF cornerback Johnny Lamar, who returned the interception to the Kentucky 1. 

That made things easy for the Gators' freshman QB. 

Ran Carthon’s 1-yard touchdown run with 3:15 remaining, plus a Leak-to-Kelvin Kite 2-point conversion, made it Florida 24-21.

UK’s Taylor Begley missed a 50-yard field goal with 44 seconds to play, leaving Leak to take a knee for his first win. 

“I still remember the locker room after the game,” said Leak, who finished 20 of 35 for 268 yards, two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. “The guys and the joy on their faces.”

Some examples from that day: 

Sophomore center Mike Degory: “Chris graduated today. He’s like a senior now.” 

Senior offensive tackle Max Starks: “There’s no description for the excitement and joy and all the adjectives that relate to that [comeback]. It was just unbelievable. Our whole sideline just erupted after the interception. It was awesome. We knew it was our game from that point.” 

And this from Zook: “Chris did some things he knows he can’t do. He’ll learn an awful lot from this. We’ve said this all along, but the only way he’s going to to get experience is if he plays. This was a big win for him and a heck of a job by him.”

A springboard performance to a career that ended, of course, with a national championship. 

“Doesn’t seem like 10 years ago,” Leak said with a smile. 

Now, Leak wants Murphy to bring home his own set of special (and victorious) memories this weekend. 

Preferably, without so much drama. 

“He’s been here and paid his dues a long time,” Leak said. “I think he’s going to be a little more even-keeled than I was being an 18-year-old. I’m expecting a great many things from him.”

 

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