LEXINGTON, Ky. — Devin Leary is always ready to answer the question. He thinks about it a lot.
He brought it up when he met Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops and brought it up with offensive coordinator Liam Coen during spring exit interviews. It’s the only reason he’s here, really. Leary would already be cashing NFL checks if it weren’t for that big question about his health.
Leary is injury prone. Like it or not, the narrative persists. Oh, he can argue against the label and make a convincing case, but the details are often ignored in favor of the big, flashy headline.
“Man, I just took two bad shots,” Leary said, beginning a speech he’s repeated over and over again since his 2022 season ended abruptly after a lopsided pitch against Florida State.
Leary was a burgeoning star quarterback for NC State in 2021, throwing 35 touchdowns and just five interceptions, but that season he was booked with a broken leg after a seemingly routine slide five games into the 2020 season and a torn pectoral muscle after that his right arm struck a defender after a pitch six games in 2022.
No hamstring pulls. No ACL tears. No sprained ankles or sore elbows. Leary hasn’t dealt with any of the routine injuries that typically happen to a quarterback. In fact, after renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews evaluated Leary’s MRI last fall, he lamented that it was the first time he’d seen a quarterback with that type of pectoral injury.
Injury prone? Hell no, Leary insists. Strange things happen, and he was unlucky enough to have them happen to him twice.
Yet the more Leary dodges the label, the more he feels it defines him as he prepares for his sixth season of college football and his first at Kentucky. He entered the transfer portal in December as one of the most sought-after players in the country. He has legitimate NFL aspirations when he finishes this year. But for now, what he has in mind is simply showing that he can get back on the field, escape the wrath of the injury gods for another year, and fight that narrative with his arm instead of his words. .
“I pride myself on being tough and taking hits and being there,” Leary said. “But that’s only part of my journey, and I’ve learned to accept it.”
Leary’s trip was never supposed to include a pit stop in Lexington. After his stellar 2021 season ended with a canceled bowl game, he considered leaving school for the NFL, but opted to burnish his resume for one final season at NC State. Last summer, he worked out at Manning Passing Academy with future draft stars Bryce Young, CJ Stroud, Anthony Richardson and Will Levis, and held his own. As the 2022 season began, NC State was ranked in the preseason top 10, and Leary was named the ACC preseason player of the year.
And then everything fell apart.
In the days following the injury, NC State coach Dave Doeren said he was hopeful Leary could return later in the 2022 season, but Leary said he instantly knew his year was over. His final numbers for the season that were supposed to propel him into the NFL: 11 touchdowns, four interceptions and fewer than 1,300 yards of offense.
Leary flew with his mother to Alabama for a consultation with Andrews, still hoping he could recover in time for the NFL combine. The news was not good.
Andrews offered two options. Leary could try to rehab the injury and, if all went well, he could possibly pitch at the combine or on pro day. But if rehab didn’t remedy the problem, he would need surgery, further delaying his return date. If he opted for immediate surgery, he would face a lengthy recovery that would see him plummet down the draft boards. Oh, and just to add another wrinkle, it would be the first time Andrews would perform the required procedure on a quarterback.
“He changed my whole world in one conversation,” Leary said.
Leary and his mother retired to a waiting room and called his father. The three discussed it and opted for surgery. Once he made that decision, he opened the floodgates for even more world-altering options.
“I had to reevaluate everything I was planning for the following year,” Leary said, “…and that included where I was going to play.”
Leary said he kept Doeren informed every step of the way, but after five years in Raleigh, he finally decided it was time for a change of scenery and entered his name on the transfer portal.
The first call Leary received came from Kentucky receiving coach Scott Woodward. In high school, Leary had attended camp at Wagner University at the behest of a Florida coach, but it was Woodward, then an assistant at UMass, who made a real impression on the young QB. Six years later, that relationship paid dividends for both of them.
Leary was widely considered among the best players available during the winter portal window, and had interest from dozens of schools. Leary eventually narrowed his options down to five and made only two official visits: to Kentucky and Auburn.
However, he knew before he left campus in Lexington that he wanted to play for the Wildcats.
Woodward was the one who opened the door, but Leary found support in Kentucky’s newest QB, Levis. The two met at the airport waiting for a flight to Manning Passing Academy in 2022. At the time, they discussed the possibility of sharing a stage in the 2023 NFL draft. When they met again in the UK, just two months before Levis headed to the NFL combine, the conversation was much different.
“I’m sitting with Will and he’s talking about why he should come to Kentucky,” Leary said. “It’s crazy how the world spins around sometimes.”
However, it was Kentucky’s new offensive coordinator who sealed the deal for Levis. Coen helped Levis become a star as a transfer QB in 2021, but Coen soon left to work as an OC for the Los Angeles Rams. In late 2022, Coen opted to return to his college roots, returning to Kentucky to set up another transfer. Still, it was that year-long hiatus in Los Angeles that convinced Leary that he had found a home with the Wildcats.
“He pulled three or four plays that ran here in 2021,” Leary recalled, “then they pulled three or four plays from the Rams, and Matthew Stafford is running the exact same concepts.”
Leary’s NFL dreams have been delayed a year, but in Coen he saw a coach who could make him a better quarterback when those dreams finally came true.
Coen also did his homework on Leary. Years ago, Coen had worked with a QB in Maine named Danny Collins. Coen loved the boy. He was tough, singularly focused, lived in the movie theater. He had a big arm but he thrived on reading a defense. He played with a chip on his shoulder, Coen said, he was liked by his teammates and played with a bit of New Jersey swagger. Leary checked all of those same boxes, right down to his home state.
“You see the ball jump out of his hand on film,” said Coen, who even watched the press conferences of Leary’s NC State teammates to see how they talked about their QB, “but you see a player who all improves When it plays. “
The key there, however, is the last part: “When you play.”
Leary has missed 15 games over the past three seasons, and when he arrived at Kentucky in January, there was no guarantee he would pitch without pain.
Andrews helped provide a protocol for Leary’s return, slowly increasing his workload until he regained the lost strength in his arm. Leary tried out his arm for the first time in early March, just before Kentucky started spring ball. The objective was 60 shots against the air.
“The first 10 pitches,” Leary said, “my arm feels shot.”
Slowly things got better. Doctor’s orders limited the number of pitches he could throw each day, and by Kentucky’s first game of the spring, Leary looked the same.
“You can see the toughness and he has the ability,” Stoops said. “We were trying to limit his pitches a little bit, but there were certain pitches that caught our eye.”
His new teammates had also noticed. At NC State, Leary was the undisputed leader after five years of hard work and big wins. At Kentucky, he took a more measured approach, hoping to earn respect with his game rather than rock the boat on a new locker room.
It was in that first scrimmage that it all came together. The offense was down and needed a big play. Leary read the defense, took the snap and fired a laser over the middle between two defenders for a big gain. The whole tone of the practice changed. With one pitch, it was clear: Leary’s arm was back and his role was set.
“All the guys were excited,” right guard Eli Cox said. “And that’s when you know.”
There are still some unknowns for Leary. Coen wants him to work more under center this season, something he rarely did at NC State. Coen has been impressed by Leary’s field awareness, a gift, he said, that reminds him of Stafford, but he also believes that Leary sometimes lets the big picture get in the way of his accuracy. Leary has earned the respect of his teammates, but this summer, during 7-on-7 drills, is when he’ll need to become a more vocal leader of the offense.
And yes, there’s still the question of her health, because after two serious injuries in three years, the narrative won’t die until Leary lays her to rest on the field.