Devin Leary decided to grow a beard as a sophomore.
As a sophomore in high school, that is.
That was at Timber Creek High in Erial, New Jersey. That also was the last time, Leary said, that he was in any type of competition to be his team’s starting quarterback.
Flash forward a few years and Leary is doing it again. He still has the beard. He’s also competing with Matt McKay and Bailey Hockman to be N.C. State’s starter at quarterback when the season opens Aug. 31 against East Carolina at Carter-Finley Stadium.
“I’m just trying to take it day by day, trying to get better at one thing every single day and not get overwhelmed with everything,” Leary said in a media interview last week. “Obviously, there’s a quarterback battle going on, but I think with all of us we don’t look at it in that type of way. As long as we can compete with ourselves every single day, that’s all that matters.”
Leary came to N.C. State with a fistful of New Jersey prep passing records and judged to be a four-star recruit. With Ryan Finley firmly installed at quarterback, Leary sat out last season as a freshman, redshirting and waiting his turn as Finley’s final season played out.
“I feel like a lot of young guys come in and they set really high goals for themselves and they expect to play right away,” Leary said. “But I think for me it’s maturing, being able to take that step back and realizing, ‘OK, not everything is going to happen immediately, at one time.’ Being able to take it day by day is my goal.”
Leary, McKay and Hockman all got their turns as the days rolled by in spring practices and then in the Wolfpack’s spring game. Leary was 12-of-23 passing for 104 yards, with a touchdown and an interception, noting after the game he had “tons of room” for improvement.
“Just being more comfortable in the offense,” he said this week. “Mastering the system, studying it every single day. Just breaking down coverages and being able to know coverage IDs, and really being able to anticipate all the throws we have in our playbook.”
Through fall camp, McKay appears to have a clear edge as the No. 1 guy. But Hockman and Leary have been pushing him, looking to impress the staff with consistency, attention to detail and a willingness to work.
“It’s been good,” quarterbacks coach Kurt Roper said. “They obviously understand the system better, the terminology better. We’re adding more on their plate quickly. Spring is different than fall [practice]. Fall you’ve got to start preparing to have your weapons to win a football game, so the install is greater. But they’ve done a good job.
“Devin has a year’s worth of work in this system. He’s got a feel for that and is still progressing, but we can’t lose sight of the fact he’s still a freshman and hasn’t been in the system a long time. He’s really talented throwing the football and growing every day.”
Leary, from Sicklerville, New Jersey, said he has always been a goal-setter.
“Absolutely,” he said firmly. “That’s something how I was raised.”
In high school, he had a former Timber Creek quarterback, Danny Williams, in his sights. Williams wore No. 13 and set a New Jersey single-season passing record with 3,545 yards. Leary then wore No. 13 and beat Williams’ record with 3,688 yards as a junior.
And wouldn’t you know it, there’s now another No. 13 at Timber Creek who has Leary in his sights — quarterback Donovan Leary. He’s Devin’s younger brother, although being 6-2 and 190 pounds, Donovan Leary is hardly a little brother.
“He’s getting big on me,” said Devin, who is 6-2 and 212 pounds.
Donovan Leary has received scholarship offers from eight schools for the class of 2022, Devin said, including East Carolina, Maryland and Rutgers. The two FaceTime each other frequently, Devin said, although not always to talk football.
Devin Leary had a slew of scholarship offers after twice being named the New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year and being selected to attend the Elite 11 quarterbacks competition at Nike Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. Also in that select group was a tall, slender, long-haired kid with a live arm from Cartersville, Georgia, Trevor Lawrence,
While Leary was being redshirted last season, Lawrence led Clemson to an undefeated season and the national championship as a freshman.
Leary says he’s stays in touch with some of the quarterbacks from the Elite 11, “picking their brains.” He said he recently talked with Matt Corral at Ole Miss, noting Corral had changed his throwing motion and looked a lot smoother, quicker.
Leary said he also reached out to congratulate Lawrence, who he called a “great kid, humble kid,” after the Tigers’ national title. No surprise either, Leary said. He could tell Lawrence had some special qualities.
Leary had more scholarship offers roll in after his Elite 11 selection. Penn State made a late push. But he committed to N.C. State after his junior year and said he wasn’t going to be persuaded to go elsewhere.
“I told myself something my mom always told me, that once you’re committed to something, stay committed,” he said. “There’s no point of committing and decommitting. I was Wolfpack all the way.”
And the goal-setter’s goal this season? Be the Wolfpack starter?
“Help the team win,” he said.