Tommy Tuberville knows that Georgia's Quincy Carter is widely considered the best quarterback in the Southeastern Conference, but Auburn's second-year coach says Ben Leard is just as good -- if not better.
"I think he's got a chance to be the best quarterback in our conference," Tuberville said of Leard, the Tigers' fifth-year senior.
A look at the numbers suggests Tuberville might be on to something. Despite missing part or all of five games in 1999 because of various injuries, the 6-foot-4, 225-pounder from Hartwell, Ga., completed 111 of 157 passes for 1,423 yards and 12 touchdowns with one interception.
Those numbers are a big reason Tuberville likes his team's chances of earning its first winning season since 1997.
"If he stays healthy, we're going to be a pretty good offensive football team," said Tuberville, whose team showed glimpses of formidability last season despite finishing 5-6.
But keeping Leard healthy might be tougher than it seems. He suffered a separated shoulder against Ole Miss and sat out three games. His first game back, against Arkansas, he was knocked unconscious and missed the next game because of a concussion.
"I hope the injuries are in the past," Leard said.
Perhaps Leard's biggest weakness was his inability to throw from beneath a pile of defenders. Auburn quarterbacks were sacked 33 times last season while operating behind a patchwork offensive line, and Leard missed five starts because of the separated shoulder and concussion.
"The thing that hindered him last year was that every time we lined up, there was a different offensive line because of the injuries," Tuberville said.
Despite the problems, Leard offered plenty of evidence last season that greatness could be in his future. He set six school records -- among them a 70.7 completion percentage and 170.78 passing efficiency -- and during one particularly torrid September stretch, he completed 46 of 59 passes for five touchdowns and no interceptions.
And then there was the crown jewel of Leard's career. Back in his home state, Leard completed 24 of 32 passes for a school-record 416 yards as Auburn torched Georgia 38-21 at Sanford Stadium.
"It was a dream come true," said Leard, who played an hour away from Athens at Hart County High but wasn't recruited by the Bulldogs. "That game, I would have taken a one-point victory if I had to. It made it that much sweeter to win a game like that."
Leard should have more time to throw in 2000. The offensive line returns four starters, and a rushing attack that was abysmal in 1999 -- 68 yards per game, 112th out of 114 Division I-A teams -- figures to improve with the addition of tailback Rudi Johnson, a transfer from Butler County (Kan.) Community College who amassed 2,224 yards and 31 touchdowns last season.
Leard also has Ronney Daniels, a sophomore who set a school record with 1,068 receiving yards on 56 catches and led the SEC with 97 receiving yards per game.
"You're always going to have your little nicks and bruises, but to be healthy throughout a whole season takes a lot of luck," Leard said. "You can't try to be careful and watch out for what you're doing, because then you're going to be playing scared."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.