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Quarterback preview: It’s Devin Leary time

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This kid can play

North Carolina State v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Devin Leary exploded onto the scene in last year’s showstopping performance at Pittsburgh, which included 336 yards, four touchdown passes, no interceptions, and two go-ahead touchdown drives in the final ten minutes of the game. It was his first start of the year and the highlight of a two-year career that to this point has felt like an M-80 with a faulty fuse: ready to explode but burning out before it has the chance.

Leary was 2-0 as a starter entering last year’s Duke game and had left no doubt as to whose team it was prior to him getting sidelined for the rest of 2020 with a nasty lower-leg injury that occurred in the late third quarter. It had been a tumultuous run already for the young quarterback. Prior to his brief moment of stardom in 2020 getting abruptly and violently shut down, Leary had been tossed into the (dumpster) fire in 2019 to no avail and then missed most of the preseason in 2020 due to contract tracing, which cost him his starting job in week one. Almost nothing has been normal for the Wolfpack’s impending star quarterback, until now.

Leary is now healthy and getting a normal preseason camp with continuity around him both on the field and on the coaching staff. This feels like the moment for a guy whose raw talent had been undeniable since the second he first stepped on the field. There is naturally going to remain some uncertainty encircling a player who has still only started a handful of games. That’s why Leary has been getting the “intriguing” label a lot this offseason, but if you watched each snap he took last season, it’s hard to feel like that word does the potential here justice.

The thing that stands out first about Leary is his ability to be accurate down the field, which narrowly edges out the cannon he has attached to his shoulder. He’s a risk-taker and plays with a little bit of reckless abandon at times, but it hasn’t gotten him into much trouble because he has both the accuracy and the arm strength to fire the ball into tight windows or to leave the ball in a place where only Emeka Emezie can get a hand on it. His ability to stretch the field that way adds a degree of explosiveness to the passing game that isn’t nearly as prominent without him. It also creates serious matchup problems for anyone trying to cover the Pack’s big receivers man-to-man, as was demonstrated perfectly by the University of Pittsburgh. The Pack gave Pittsburgh’s man-coverage defense fits with the back-shoulder ball and Leary’s ability to place the football made that possible.

Look at this perfectly placed back shoulder.

Another really well-placed back shoulder ball for a deep touchdown.

And here’s him firing the ball into a tight window from the Virginia game.

This, of course, was all apparent in 2019 as well, albeit lacking any semblance of consistency. Leary needed the game to slow down, among other things, to really crack open that shell and get at all the talent inside. The quarterback we briefly saw last year was a different player because that very thing happened. What struck you most about Leary in 2020 wasn’t the physical attributes, because we already knew about those, but it was how comfortable he looked after being a deer in the headlights just a year before. This all bodes very well for the continued development of the young quarterback that NC State is building its next chapter around.

Leary is still a long way from his ceiling and calling him a proven commodity at this point would be a stretch. But the Pack entered 2020 with a lot of question marks surrounding him as the future of the quarterback position. It enters 2021 having seen the light. This kid can play, and he has everything he needs to be great.