It looked like the University of North Carolina had all but put the nail in the coffin back in November of last season after Tar Heels kicker Grayson Atkins sent a 50-yarder through the uprights to give the team a 30-21 lead over rival NC State with just over two minutes remaining.
Those who had put this one in the books as a UNC win after the field goal couldn’t have anticipated what came next. The Wolfpack put a pair of touchdowns on the board in the span of 63 seconds as quarterback Devin Leary connected with Emeka Emezie on a 64-yard touchdown pass, followed up with a 24-yard scoring throw to Emezie again, this time in the left corner of the end zone.
The No. 20-ranked Wolfpack, who hadn’t always garnered a high level of national attention, pulled off one of the most improbable finishes of the season as they defeated their in-state rival, 34-30.
It also marked the day Leary made school history, surpassing former Wolfpack quarterback Russell Wilson for most passing touchdowns (35) in a single season as he completed over 63% of his passes that game for 247 yards and four touchdowns without an interception.
The ability to rally and make things happen even in unlikely situations is something NC State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tim Beck has come to expect from Leary.
“We’re never out of it with him,” Beck said. “Whether it was late in the game, late in the half, a two-minute drive, if it was third and 10 because they had covered it or whatever had happened, he would still make a play and give our guys a chance to make a play.”
Leary’s ability to do that comes down to a mental processing power that continues to speed up throughout his development, along with command of his teammates and overall mindset.
“We never once doubted ourselves,” Leary said. “We never once thought we were going to lose the game. We controlled what we were able to and went out each and every play and won the play. At the end of the game, when the clock runs out, then you look at the scoreboard. That’s kind of how it went and how our approach was the whole game. It was a historical win for us.”
Even though there were some games Leary says he’d like to have back, there’s no doubting 2021 was a monumental year for NC State, which finished 9-3, earning its first top-20 finish since it finished at No. 12 in 2002.
“It’s always challenging competing in the ACC,” Leary said. “Each and every week you always have to prepare well and expect a big game. Usually going into every season recently, the main talk of the ACC is Clemson. For us last year, being able to go out there and compete with a team like that and keep putting our best foot forward shows we can compete with the best and that we can be nationally ranked. In the past, in previous games, we sometimes hurt ourselves as a program as far as losing different games with penalties or just other self-inflicted things. Being able to overcome some of those obstacles, understanding that we can achieve what we set out to do was huge for us this year.”
Moving forward in a season in which he could very well be the best quarterback in the ACC and among the best in the nation, Leary’s goals for himself and the team remain lofty – though he’s already shown they’re not at all unattainable.
“I want to be able to take that next step in my game,” he said. “Continue to identify defenses, continue to alert different pressures. Being able to make checks against the right looks at the right time. Also just continuing to manage the game and exceed in this offense and really lead this team to what I know we can achieve — getting to the ACC Championship, getting into the College Football Playoff, competing for a national championship. Those are all goals we set for ourselves, but it’s up to us to get after it and get it done.”
On his third offense in his college football career, Leary is no stranger to making transitions quickly and has progressed at a quick rate. Beck continues to notice several improvements on his quarterback’s end both last year and ahead of the 2022 season, commending him for his toughness, ability to take hits, pocket presence and decision-making.
“Number one was protecting the football better, Beck said. “When things weren’t there, he didn’t force throws, he threw it away or scrambled up and he allowed us to and realized that we could go to the next play and have a chance.”
In addition to getting better with situational football and from the mental aspect, Beck also says he’s noticed Leary’s release getting quicker, something that’s key in an offense that is RPO-heavy like NC State’s is.
“This spring, one thing we worked on was a quicker release,” Beck said. “We do a lot of the RPO stuff and making the decision hasn’t always been the issue, sometimes it’s being a little bit longer, you’re trying to get your feet set, trying to be on platform, like the perfect throwing mechanics, right? Well, that doesn’t work all the time – he’s got a really strong arm and we’ve worked a lot on off-balance throws, different arm angles and I thought he really made a jump there. I really like what he did.”
While Leary is checking the boxes more and more every day tangibly speaking, perhaps what’s been even more important and impressive have been the intangibles and the way he operates.
Beck says that when he first got to NC State that Leary was “novice to a lot of things” but that his work ethic shined through as he pushed through it, something that’s helped him to make the strides he has.
“He’s become a really good leader over the year,” Beck said. “He’s got a positive mindset and is really encouraging, but when guys don’t do things right, in a good way, he has no problem going over to them and saying ‘Hey, I need you here.’ So I think he’s really taken a step in that area.”
Even with all of this and the amount of growth Leary has shown just this spring, he still could have declared for the 2022 NFL Draft and been among the top quarterback prospects this season after he finished the year with a 65.7% completion percentage, 3,433 passing yards, 35 touchdowns and five interceptions.
But Leary didn’t want to go pro until putting the best version of himself out on the field – something we should anticipate to see this year.
“There’s so much more that I can learn, constantly challenging myself to get better,” Leary said. “By making that decision to come back, and looking back on it later, it’s going to be one of the best decisions I’ve made just because I’ll be able to prepare and develop that much more and come Day 1, put on display why I chose to come back.”