When Athlon Sports released its preseason rankings of ACC quarterbacks in August, it had NC State’s Devin Leary at No. 14 on the list.
Only Georgia Tech’s James Graham rated lower.
It wasn’t an unreasonable assessment based on the information available. Leary completed only 48.1% of his passes as a redshirt freshman in 2019 and failed to lead the Wolfpack to a win in any of his six starts to close out the season.
But coach Dave Doeren saw something in the strong-armed New Jersey native that few outside the program did, which is why he didn’t even wait for the start of spring practice to name Leary his starter for 2020.
On Saturday, Leary rewarded his coach’s faith in him by leading State to a 30-29 road upset of No. 24 Pittsburgh.
“We’ve been waiting for him to become the guy,” Doeren said of his QB1, who finished his high school career as his state’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdown passes.
“We’ve always known what his arm was. This team believes in him. You can see it in the locker room. They rally around him. He’s just calm and poised. He’s got a really, really good arm. He’s a tough kid, and he really played a heck of a football game. I’m very proud of him and very happy for him.”
Leary completed 28 of 44 passes for 336 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions, a performance that earned him recognition as the ACC’s Quarterback of the Week.
More important than the numbers were the poise, confidence and leadership he showed with the game on the line.
Trailing by five with no timeouts left and just 1:44 on the clock, Leary calmly moved the Wolfpack down the field. He extended the drive by connecting with Thayer Thomas on a fourth-and-9 play before finishing the job with a perfectly thrown 13-yard dart to Emeka Emezie in the end zone with just 23 seconds remaining.
“Devin was nails,” Doeren said. “He did a great job of reading coverage and putting the ball where it needed to be.”
As dramatic as the touchdown and victory might have been, Leary insisted afterward that the final drive was nothing more than business as usual.
“It’s just something that we practice every single week, different situations depending on where the ball is, how many timeouts we have, how much time is on the clock,” He said. “Usually in practice, we practice with under a minute and 40.
“We’re a tempo team, so just being able to get everybody on the ball set, everyone on the same page was very critical in those last couple seconds coming down the game. The last play, like (offensive coordinator Tim) Beck tells me all the time, it’s just ‘give our guys a chance.’ As long as you give them a chance, that’s all you could do.”
While he was supposed to atop the depth chart come the Wolfpack’s opener, Leary missed 20 days of practice during preseason camp because of contact tracing and was replaced by backup Bailey Hockman for the first two games this season.
He finally saw action during the second half of State’s Week 2 loss at Virginia Tech, completing 12 of 16 passes to convince Doeren and Beck that he was ready to take over and lead the offense.
“As hard as it was for him not to play in the Wake Forest game, I think it was the right thing for us to do coming out of the quarantine that he had,” Doeren said. “It’s given him time to get back to where he needed to be, and he’s done a great job of taking coaching from Coach Beck.
“It was nice to see him with starting wideouts and starting offensive linemen and three rotational tailbacks and all the tight ends. I think you got a good glimpse of what he is and what he could be.”
As far as Leary is concerned, Saturday’s game at Pittsburgh was only the beginning.
“I hold myself to a very high standard, a high expectation and it carries over to the team,” said the Wolfpack quarterback, who will lead his team against Virginia in Charlottesville this Saturday. “We’re very hungry. We set high standards and we always try to raise the standard if we meet it. …
“Every week we set a mission and the mission is to win the game. When I came to NC State that was my main priority, to do whatever I can as best as I can to help this team win. Being able to get that first win was huge for me. It was definitely seeing all my hard work pay off a little bit.”