As a redshirt junior last season, Leary threw for 3,433 passing yards (more than Sam Howell), 35 touchdowns (more than Brennan Armstrong), 29 big-time throws (more than Kenny Pickett) and just five interceptions. All of this came with a turnover-worthy play rate of just 1.9% — better than nearly every quarterback in his conference.
After a career year, Leary says two things stick out about his career thus far.
“The first thing I learned is that it is a process — everything is a process,” Leary told PFF. “Whether you think you're ready or whether you don't think you're ready, there's still a process that you have to go through to get to the point where you want to be.”
“The second was don't have any regrets playing football because so many things can be taken away from you so fast.”
When The Process Isn’t As Planned
Leary came to NC State as a four-star recruit from south Jersey. He was named New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year after setting state records in touchdowns (48) and passing yards (3,688) and chose the Wolfpack over Maryland, Baylor, Pitt, Boston College and others.
What made NC State stand out?
A fast-food BBQ chain called Cookout.
“I mean, $6 platter trays at Cookout is unbeatable,” Leary said with a laugh.
A double burger tray, chicken quesadilla, cheese fries and a strawberry cheesecake milkshake, to be exact.
It’s true. Cookout, Bojangles and the BBQ belt played a role in Leary falling in love with the Carolinas. But it was actually a fellow south Jersey standout and future teammate, Kelvin Harmon, who helped put NC State on Leary’s radar.
“My first time actually ever hearing about NC State is when Kelvin Harmon announced that his top two schools coming out of high school, because Kelvin Harmon is a South Jersey guy, as well,” Leary said. “His top two coming out of high school at the time were Miami and NC State. Being from South Jersey, I’d never really been down south before. I’m like, ‘Oh, well that's a no-brainer. Of course you go to Miami,' and he chose NC State. That kind of hit me where I'm like, ‘Alright, I need to check this school out because we got South Jersey guys going there.’ We ended up going down there as a team my sophomore year and I loved it. It was like a gold mine.”
One post-camp meal at Cookout, and rest was history.
Leary made his way to Raleigh and redshirted his first year in 2018. In 2019, with veteran Ryan Finley gone, Leary knew he had his shot. But Leary was still young as a redshirt freshman, and the team brought in transfer quarterback Bailey Hockman. The move made sense, but Leary thought he was ready; in his mind he knew he was.
He wanted his shot, but he had to wait. Leary started the season as the third-stringer but in the end got his wish starting, the final six games of the season. He threw for over 1,200 yards with eight touchdowns and five interceptions.
The momentum was on his side.
Going into 2020, all signs pointed to Leary being “the guy” at quarterback. Taking the reins as a redshirt sophomore with starting experience under his belt meant the future was bright. With two solid years of starting experience in a Power 5 conference ahead of him, and Leary would be poised to make the NFL jump. It was all right there on the road map.
Unfortunately, that’s when the “everything’s a process” part of his life lessons hit hard.
As we all know now, the 2020 college football season was not what it was supposed to be. In the midst of a global pandemic, simply getting the season off the ground required strict rules and regulations for all participants.
Leary went into spring and summer workout as the starting quarterback. But as summer practices were winding down and the first game neared, Leary was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and it changed everything. A player and friend of his who he would often eat lunch with tested positive for COVID-19. Though Leary didn’t test positive himself, he was deemed a close contact and had to quarantine for two weeks.
“That was tough,” Leary said. “That was really frustrating because I was healthy, I was in good shape, I felt good. I was getting in a good rhythm with the team and I kind of had to just sit in my apartment, still being healthy, still feeling fine. I was just watching film every day from practice and had to zoom in on the calls. I was still in tune, though. I was definitely still in tune, still keeping up with the game plan, understanding what was going on each and every day of practice, the different looks, still breaking down Wake Forest, who was our first opponent.”
Leary felt good when he got back on the practice field. He didn’t have those two weeks of reps, but mentally he was as sharp as he could be. But ask any football player and they’ll tell you that mental reps and real reps aren’t the same. Leary’s coaches believed the same, and they had to sit down with the redshirt sophomore QB and tell him he wouldn’t be the starter for Week 1.
“That kind of hit me hard, not gonna lie,” Leary said. “It kind of brought me back to 2019 a little bit, where I was that third-string guy and I felt as if I was ready to play, but the coaches thought otherwise and it was kind of out of my control at this point.”
He was frustrated. It wasn’t supposed to go like this. Opportunities to start in college football can be few and far between. He thought he had his all lined up. Was it all for nothing?
Hockman started the first game, and the team beat Wake Forest. Coming off a win, they weren’t going to change quarterbacks, so Hockman remained the starter. Leary came in during the following week’s game against Virginia Tech and finished the game. He then started the following week against Pitt and led the Wolfpack to a thrilling 30-29 win.
Everything appeared to be back on track for Leary. And then the second lesson began.
No Regrets; You’ll Miss It When It’s Gone
Under Leary’s leadership, the Wolfpack beat Virginia the following week and were in the process of getting another victory against Duke when Leary hit another roadblock, breaking his fibula on a hit while sliding. His 2020 season was over.
Leary soon began rehabbing the injury, but it was a long journey. He had never suffered a major injury in sports. The road back was long and difficult. Leary eventually saw small improvements and built off them. He continued to believe that once he was finally able to be back on that field again that it would all be worth it.
One year later, the stats suggest that it was.
Leary 2021 stats
|Metric||Figure||Rank vs. ACC|
|Turnover-Worthy Play %||1.90%||2nd|
|Adjusted Completion %||76%||3rd|
|NFL Passer Rating||112.3||2nd|
The Wolfpack finished the season 6-2 in the conference and 9-3 overall. After the season, Leary had a decision to make: return for another year and build off his first full season as a starter or potentially start his pro career.
“When I got down to my final meetings with my coaches, there were a couple of projections that had me rounds 3-6,” Leary said.”Obviously, I'm very thankful for that. Being able to see a lot of my hard work from the year before pay off to where they're actually considering giving me a shot to play at the next level. But I was just thinking to myself, ‘If that’s what I was able to do with just one full season as a starter, and if I could come back and put another good one together, the sky will be the limit for me,' and I truly believe that in myself.”
Leary rattles off all the areas he knows he can improve going into the 2022 college football season and 2023 draft process: reading defenses with more anticipation, protection calls, checking out of certain looks and generally just showing consistency with two strong years under his belt.
Going into 2022, physically he feels good. Mentally, with football IQ and beyond, he feels even better.
“A lot of times, things in your own head feel a lot bigger than what they really were,” Leary said. “I didn't really understand that at a young age coming into college. I just wanted to play under the bright lights, wanted to show all my teammates how good I can be for them. I had to realize that, early on, maybe I wasn't ready. Maybe all the battles that I had in my head of, ‘Why am I not playing? Why can't I do this? Well, I could do that too.’ In the long run, I needed to wait through that process. I needed to have those growing steps. I needed to make as many mistakes as possible.”
Leary made the decision to come back for his redshirt senior season. He’s currently seventh all-time in NC State’s record books for passing yards and sixth in passing touchdowns. With another season like last year, he’ll rank top-five in both categories.
Still, Leary doesn't focus as much on the records. He has a renewed appreciate for the opportunity to put up those types of numbers.
“[The past two years] gave me a different perspective of the game: Don’t regret the little things,” Leary said. “Don't regret getting into the cold tub after a hot workout because you get to do that. Don’t regret even being able to jog onto the football field because there was a period of time for months where I was riding around on a scooter and would be falling over trying to get up some steps. Or if it was raining outside, I'd be slipping all over the place. Now, the littlest things are like, ‘Alright, now I can jog onto the practice field. Now I can actually step and take a throw.’
“I get to do that thing that I love.”