RALEIGH — All eyes were on the quarterback early in NC State’s annual spring football game at Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday.
Just not the one everybody came to see.
On the second play of the White team’s opening possession, Ben Finley had to be helped from the field after being inadvertently knocked down by a tackle in the backfield. The knee injury wasn’t as serious as it first appeared, and the freshman backup eventually returned to the game.
Once that drama was averted, the attention turned back to the main attraction: starter Devin Leary.
Seeing live action for the first time since suffering a broken leg last season, the redshirt sophomore shook off a slow start to complete 12 of 23 passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns in the intrasquad scrimmage that saw his Red team post a 37-17 win.
“It was just fun to be back out there in a live setting competing with everyone,” Leary said. “But it was also fun to just compete with all the brothers that we’ve created such great chemistry over the offseason. It’s been a pretty long time coming, but it was fun out there.
Leary might have been a little too excited at the start. Either that, or it took him a few throws to shake off the rust from his six months of inactivity.
His first pass sailed high over the head of an open receiver. His next two were also incomplete before he hit Porter Rooks down the seam for a 58-yard touchdown.
Even then, he wasn’t completely in rhythm. Another overthrow early in the second quarter resulted in an interception by redshirt freshman nickel Nicholas Treco.
The 6-foot-1, 212-pound New Jersey native eventually settled in, making his two best throws of the day to finish off a touchdown drive on which he hit a well-covered Thayer Thomas with a perfectly placed ball in the corner of the end zone.
He then led a tidy two-minute drill that yielded a field goal on the final play of the half before Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren decided he’d seen enough from his on-the-field leader.
“Outside of the interception and the first pass, the first one he had a guy pretty open and rushed it, he played well,” Doeren said of Leary. “The thing I like about how Devin is playing is he’s just comfortable right now.
“He knows the system. His eyes are in good places. He’s communicating well. He’s making quick decisions. He’s doing what (offensive coordinator Tim) Beck wants him to do. It’s just fun to watch him in his progression from last year to this year.”
Finley also had a solid day, going 10 of 20 for 160 yards and a rushing touchdown while splitting time between both teams.
With top backs Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person Jr. both inactive, Jordan Houston was the game’s leading rusher with 89 yards and a score on 10 carries before leaving with a minor injury just before halftime.
True freshman linebacker Caden Fordham had the defensive highlight when he picked off fellow early enrollee Aaron McLaughlin and returned it for a 13-yard fourth-quarter touchdown.
The Wolfpack’s success in the fall, however, will likely start and end with Leary’s performance.
He earned the starting job last spring but had to wait two games into the 2020 season before finally getting to taking the reins because of COVID-19 contact tracing.
Then, after leading State to three straight victories — including one at Pittsburgh in which he threw the winning touchdown pass with less than a minute remaining — his season abruptly ended on Oct. 17 when he suffered a broken leg late in a win against Duke.
As painful as the experience was, he said that it could turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
“After I got injured, I told myself I would never take anything with football for granted,” said Leary, who threw for 879 yards with eight touchdowns and two interceptions before getting hurt. “Just now seeing everything pay off is definitely exciting to see.”
Doeren is just as excited.
“Having Devin back for spring ball is a big deal,” he said at the start of the 15-practice offseason session.” You always love having your starting quarterback leading you on the field.
“The mental space he’s in right now is outstanding. Devin believes in himself. He’s very confident, not cocky at all — just very confident in the role that he’s in.”