CLEMSON - The only time Clemson linebacker John Leake is more comfortable than when he's talking is when he's playing football.
Give him the chance to do both, and look out.
Leake, sweat-riddled and red-skinned from the heat, paused just inside the Jervey practice facility gates long enough to drop a few hundred well-chosen words on the media covering the beginning of practice for the 2003 football season. The smile splitting his face only briefly hid the intensity lying just below the surface.
For John Leake, anything resembling last season's 7-6 record would be nothing short of plain, unmitigated failure.
"We're just a step away," Leake said. "We're this close to winning 10, 11, 12 games. We plan on doing it this year. Our first practice went really well, better than I thought it was going to go. So that's a good thing.
"Too many little mistakes last year. We can't have that again."
Blowout losses to N.C. State at home and to Texas Tech in the Tangerine Bowl gave many the impression that Clemson is significantly further away than just a step.
But Leake doesn't buy the notion that the 2003 Tigers can't be big winners. Nearly every sentence he speaks these days uses some form of the word intensity. It's as if he is carrying around a large drum, determined to beat the idea into the minds of teammates, fans and media alike.
"We're intense because we were soft last year. That's what everybody's saying," he said. "We've got to step it up and make some plays. We're working on that."
Leake's reputation is that of a playmaker. His 169 total tackles led the team as a junior a year ago.
Yet his play, and that of his fellow linebackers, was widely considered a disappointment as the season wore on, mostly due to the number of missed tackles that piled up by year's end. It is that lingering image which partly fuels the idea that Clemson was "soft" a year ago.
And Leake didn't exactly disagree with the notion.
"I think we were (soft)," he said. "We didn't win the national championship, so in my mind we were. Until we win the national championship we'll be soft. We've got to win the ACC, then go from there."
The national championship is some five months away. For now, Leake and his teammates have to be content on preparing for the season opener with No. 9 Georgia, Aug. 30, at Death Valley.
"It felt great to run around in the heat and try to make some plays," he said "As a whole our team looks pretty good. We just have to improve every day."
Dan Scott covers Clemson University for the Florence Morning News. He also hosts SportsTalk from 9 a.m.-Noon, Monday-Friday, on WCCP-Fm, 104.9. Click here for Dan Scott's SportsTalk discussion board.