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January 27, 2007
Leak, Smith meet one last time
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Now they're vying for NFL success.
After facing off for a national title nearly three weeks ago, the quarterbacks will share the field again Saturday in the Senior Bowl and cap a weeklong NFL audition.
Florida's Leak and Ohio State's Smith are all about business, not one-upping each other.
"I don't have anything to prove," said Smith, who won the Heisman Trophy but lost the title game. "I have a lot to gain and (can) better myself. I have to just be myself. Hopefully that takes me a long ways. It's taken me this far."
Leak and Smith are high-profile passers, but they aren't the most coveted in part because they're shorter than the average NFL quarterback. Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn visited with NFL officials in Mobile, but he won't play in the game after sustaining a bursa sac injury to his right knee.
LSU's JaMarcus Russell is a junior and not eligible for the game. Russell and Quinn are considered candidates for the No. 1 overall pick.
Many of the top NFL prospects - like Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson, Southern California's Dwayne Jarrett and Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson - are underclassmen. Wisconsin offensive tackle Joe Thomas - a projected Top-5 pick - also bowed out of the game.
NFL teams and fans have to be content with Leak, Smith & Co.
The past three years, Philip Rivers, Jason Campbell and Jay Cutler all helped secure first-round selections with strong performances during Senior Bowl week.
"There's a little bit of a void behind Russell and Brady Quinn, and it seems like each year someone has emerged at the Senior Bowl," said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayoch. "I don't see a similar story emerging from this week's practices."
Smith, for instance, was intercepted three times in one midweek practice, Mayoch said.
"I truly think Drew Stanton probably had the best all-around week of the quarterbacks," he said.
Leak is used to being doubted in a career filled with yards, touchdowns and question marks. He even had to platoon with a talented freshman in fan favorite Tim Tebow.
He said he won't let the current doubters distract him.
"It's just like going into a game," said Leak, Florida's all-time passing leader and MVP of the BCS championship game. "You've got to make sure you focus on the right thing."
Besides, he never seemed to let critics affect him on the field.
Smith got accustomed to heat after the Bowl Championship Series title game. He passed for only 35 yards, was held to minus-29 yards rushing and lost an interception and a fumble in Ohio State's 41-14 loss to Leak and the Gators.
"After the bowl loss, people are scrutinizing that performance and whether or not he is as great as maybe he was in the first (12) games," said South coach Jon Gruden of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "That's the way it is."
Smith also isn't dwelling on the terrible finale. He won the Walter Camp player of the year award and the Davey O'Brien Award as the nation's top quarterback, along with the Heisman. He threw 30 touchdown passes against six interceptions, three of them off deflections.
"I have an understanding that all of my focus positively needs to be concentrated on this week, on this new part of my life," Smith said. "What's done is done, and I can do nothing about it."
He could take some advice from Leak, who likely won over even his harshest critics by finally winning a Southeastern Conference and national title. He said he's not paying any more heed to talk about his draft stock than he did his college critics.
"I've always been the type person that focuses on making sure that I'm prepared for the game and my teammates are prepared," Leak said. "That's how I've done it the entire season, and this is game week."