First and 10: Why Devin Leary could be the piece that lifts Kentucky to unprecedented heights
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
The long of the story looks like this: The significant injury and the surgery, and the transfer and the quarterback fit.
The short of the story: Kentucky may have a better quarterback fit now with Devin Leary than it had in 2022 with Will Levis.
But before we go further, an update on the injury and surgery — and the recovery. Dr. James Andrews, renowned orthopedic surgeon, is shocked that Leary, UK’s transfer quarterback, is already throwing again — after tearing the pectoral muscle attached to his right throwing arm straight off the bone in mid-October of 2022.
That’s right, straight off the bone.
From the unknown at NC State, to exceeding all expectations while rehabbing and getting ready for one last shot with Kentucky.
“I’m further along than anyone thought I would be,” Leary said. “But we’re trying to get ready for the season, not spring practice. We’re in a really good spot.”
So is Kentucky.
Nothing random happens at this level of college football. There’s no such thing as hoping for the best, or doing the same thing and expecting different results.
To win at an elite level in the SEC, it requires action. Day by day, month by month.
So when Kentucky finished a disappointing 2022 by beating rival Louisville again, it took coach Mark Stoops less than 2 days to fire offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello.
Less than a week later, Leary left NC State for the transfer portal, and the first coach to reach out was UK receivers coach Scott Woodward. Two weeks later, Leary committed to Kentucky.
Three weeks after that, Stoops convinced 2021 OC/QBs coach Liam Coen to leave the NFL’s Rams and return to the Commonwealth.
To recap: fire OC, get commitment from elite transfer quarterback before hiring new OC, hire new OC.
That’s not how it works, folks. Elite transfer quarterbacks don’t sign with a program before knowing who will coordinate the offense and call the plays — much less coach the position.
“I had complete faith and trust in Coach Stoops,” said Leary, who could’ve played just about anywhere he wanted for his final season of college football. “Then I met (Coen), and from the first phone call, I knew we were in good shape. It’s all falling in place.”
But not by happenstance.
If we’ve learned anything from Stoops in his 10 years at Kentucky, it’s that movement and action is constant. From that god awful 2-win debut season in 2013, to the hope of so much more in 2022, Kentucky is ever evolving.
Stoops initially wanted a tough team, a defense-first team, that could get stops and get the ball to an offense that ran the ball and threw off play-action. Then offensive philosophy changed, and so too did the idea of a transfer quarterback.
Then Terry Wilson came from Oregon, and Kentucky won 10 games in 2018. Then Wilson got hurt, and that was followed by the brutal COVID season, and the next thing you know, Kentucky has another transfer quarterback and a new OC named Coen — and 10 wins happens again.
The Wildcats rolled into 2022 with momentum and built to beat Georgia — or at least give it a shot — and reset the SEC East Division. They had a quarterback (Levis) who some were projecting (and still are) as the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft.
Coen had left for the Rams, but Stoops got Scangarello from the NFL. It didn’t take long to realize it wasn’t going to work — and the Wildcats fell back to 7 wins.
It doesn’t matter how or why — take your pick: spotty protection, poor play-calling, lost confidence — it just meant something had to change. Then Leary surprisingly hit the portal, and if you’re going to take a big swing, why not for the guy Alabama, Florida, Notre Dame, Auburn, Nebraska, among many others, were going after, too?
The quarterback who, in 2021, had a TD/INT ratio of 35/5, and by the end of the season, was playing better than anyone not named Bryce Young. The guy who returned in 2022, but a young offensive line struggled, and the offense had no rhythm (sound familiar, UK fans?), and the next thing you know, Leary is standing in the huddle in a big ACC game against Florida State calling the last play of his season.
A go route, the protection broke down, Leary slid forward in the pocket and tried to release a deep throw.
“A very routine play. Very freakish,” Leary said. “The defensive tackle hit my arm mid throwing motion when I’m just about ready to release. Stopped all my momentum, and boom, tore the pectoral muscle right off my arm. I felt as though I had put enough on tape, and was ready to go to the NFL, so I wanted to just build on it last year. But getting hurt shifted my whole world around.”
2. A carbon copy
It’s strange how the seasons of Levis and Leary mirrored each other, and eventually crossed.
The only difference was the injury: Leary lost his season in October, Levis was banged up the entire season, and gutted out 12 games (UK gave up 46 sacks) before opting out of the bowl game.
Leary spoke with Levis about Kentucky, and about Stoops and how he ran the program and what it was like playing for the Wildcats.
Leary was a multi-year starter at NC State, a 2-time captain. He had deep relationships with the coaching staff and players. They built the program around his ability to efficiently and proficiently play the position.
If he was going to leave, it had to be for something rare. Something that would be rewarding from a team perspective, and beneficial in building his NFL resume.
Once he got a lower round evaluation from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, “It just seemed like starting fresh was the right move.”
Levis, meanwhile, left Penn State after the 2020 season because it was clear Sean Clifford was the starting quarterback. Levis was a raw thrower when he arrived in Lexington, used primarily at Penn State as a dual-threat in run sets.
In 2 seasons at Penn State, Levis had 102 passing attempts and 133 rushes. In 1 season under Coen, his completion percentage grew 7 points (to 66 percent), his average yards per attempt grew a whopping 2 yards (from 6 to 8) and he threw 24 TDs.
In 1 season under Coen, Levis ran the ball 107 times. Leary won’t run much — other than off-schedule scrambles — but the offense will be more advanced in the pass game than it was with Levis.
Think Leary’s 2021 season — with Coen coaching and calling plays.
“I spoke with Will and got an idea of what the process at Kentucky was like, and just really felt comfortable with it,” Leary said. “It really came down to trusting Coach Stoops. Thank God I believed him, because now I’ll be coached by (Coen).”
Stoops also made good on a promise to surround Leary with help. UK already has 2 elite young receivers (Barion Brown, Dane Key), and added 1,000-yard rusher Ray Davis from Vanderbilt.
More to the point: Stoops got serious about the offensive line, adding impact starters OT Marques Cox (Northern Illinois) and G Tanner Bowles (Alabama).
“Anybody that was in the quarterback market, I mean anybody and everybody that was in the quarterback market, was after (Leary),” Stoops said. “We really feel like we hit a home run with him.”
3. Nothing is random, The Epilogue
NC State lost 3 games in 2021 — the season Leary developed into an elite thrower.
The Wolfpack lost by 1 to Miami, and by 3 to Wake Forest. The other loss: by 14 at Mississippi State.
Leary’s worst game in 2021 was, by far, the loss to Mississippi State. He was sacked 4 times, and barely completed 60 percent of his passes.
Two weeks later, NC State beat No. 9 Clemson in double overtime — and Leary had 4 TDs, 0 INTs and completed 73 percent of his throws.
“We lost and I got a great feel for the environment in the SEC,” Leary said. “The players at Mississippi State were a lot different than what we faced in the ACC. I can’t wait to take on the challenge. I’m a competitive dude.”
Leary will be on a throw count all of spring practice, and there’s no rush on a return to play. He says he has no arm pain after throwing now, but that, “before we go ripping passes at 100 percent, we want it to be completely healed.
“All I can ask for is an opportunity to lead another team. Obviously it’s not the picture prefect way I thought my college career would go, but being able to transfer to another team, earn respect all over, the potential to earn my way to be a captain again. There are so many diff things at stake that I can accomplish individually, and we can accomplish as a team.”
4. Showing up — and out
This week is a huge step for Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson, the moment where more NFL scouts and personnel could fall in love with his undeniable athletic ability.
Especially since Richardson isn’t opting out of any work this week at the NFL Combine. Some quarterbacks choose to only interview at the Combine, preferring to throw and do other physical work in a controlled environment at their schools.
Richardson will do everything at The Combine: throwing, lifting, grease board work, interviews.
“He’s putting it all out there for everyone to see,” said 6 Points QB Training director and Richardson quarterbacks coach Denny Thompson.
It’s an aggressive move for Richardson, whose game tape shows massive upside — and unthinkably poor throws. He won’t be throwing to his receivers and won’t be using his carefully prepared throw script.
He’ll throw what scouts tell him to throw, and where to throw it.
The payoff: If he wins at the Combine, if he crushes the grease board work, he’ll skyrocket up draft boards. That means more teams interested in selecting him high in the first round — and more millions.
After an uneven season as a first-time starter at Florida, Richardson is betting on himself.
5. The Weekly 5
Ole Miss’ national championship odds and 5 things the Rebels need to reach the Playoff.
1. Jaxson Dart or Spencer Sanders wins the quarterback job and has a unique season.
2. No quarterback drama. Coach Lane Kiffin wanted competition at the most important position on the field. It can’t devolve into a weekly unknown.
3. Portal additions must strengthen in the interior of the defense: LB Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste (UCF), DT Joshua Harris (NC State), LB Monty Montgomery (Louisville).
4. Tre Harris (65 catches, 10 TDs at LaTech) and Chris Marshall (former 2022 5-star, Texas A&M) give Ole Miss explosiveness it lacked in 2022 — and both need to extend plays after the catch.
5. New DC Pete Golding steps out of the shadow of Nick Saban, and the Ole Miss defense is fundamentally better — from tackling to pass breakups to pressure.
6. Your tape is your resume
An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Alabama QB Bryce Young, pre-Combine eval.
“What makes him so rare is something that won’t change (at the Combine): his pocket presence and poise, and the vision and throws on time — it’s uncanny. You hear that old cliche, somebody has to make a play. Well, that’s what he does — he just makes plays over and over. I imagine some teams will get turned off by his size. I’d be shocked if he measures over 6-feet, and 195-ish pounds. But the way we protect the QB today, and how he’s pretty good about not absorbing big hits, he’s the No. 1 at his position right now. I can’t see anyone else changing that, no matter what happens (at the Combine). I don’t think he’s going to throw.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing: biggest riser at the NFL Combine.
1. Georgia: TE Darnell Washington. When Washington, at 6-7, 270 pounds, runs a 4.6 (or faster) 40, you begin to grasp what this freakish athlete could be — at inline tight end, or flex.
2. Alabama: RB Jahmyr Gibbs. S Brian Branch is rising quickly up most boards, but Gibbs will be who everyone is talking about after he runs (maybe sub-4.4 40) and lifts.
3. Tennessee: OL Darnell Wright. Didn’t give up a sack in 2022, and more than likely is a right tackle in the NFL.
4. LSU: Edge BJ Ojulari. Quick, long and explosion off the edge. Will he get swallowed by larger NFL offensive tackles?
5. Texas A&M: S Antonio Johnson. Big, athletic and smart player. One scout I spoke to said he wouldn’t be shocked to see Johnson picked in the 12-15 range.
6. Kentucky: RB Chris Rodriguez, Jr. Made a big splash at the Senior Bowl, and can do more to help his stock at the Combine — not only physically but the interview process.
7. Ole Miss: G Nick Broeker. The move inside helped his NFL future, and he could also cross train as backup center.
8. Mississippi State: CB Emmanuel Forbes. If he runs well, he’ll sneak into the late 1st round. Talent is there, can he run sub 4.5 40?
9. South Carolina: CB Darius Rush. Will be 1 of the fastest players at the Combine — and everyone drafts speed.
10. Arkansas: LB Drew Sanders. Has made biggest jump of any defensive player this season. Big enough to be a true “Mike,” explosive enough to play edge.
11. Florida: QB Anthony Richardson. Boom or bust. There’s really no in between.
12. Missouri: DE Isaiah McGuire. Production at Missouri (16 sacks in 3 seasons) overlooked by a unit that struggled his first 2 seasons. Had 7 sacks in 2023 when defense was much improved.
13. Auburn: Edge Derick Hall. Long and athletic with strong hands, he had 19 career sacks. Can he be more than a situational pass rusher?
14. Vanderbilt: LB Anfernee Orji. A highly-productive college player, there are questions about his ability to engage with bigger, stronger players in the NFL.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I’m starting to see some unraveling a little bit from our young men in Athens. These are the things the Dawgs have to avoid if they want to 3-peat. — Thomas Fanning, Atlanta.
LB Jamon Dumas-Johnson’s arrest last week for reckless driving was dumb and dangerous — and potentially much worse if it would’ve affected others.
That said, it’s the first off-field incident for Georgia’s returning players. If there are 3 or 4 more, or a trend of incidents, over the offseason, I could see some distraction. As of now, the problem for Dumas-Johnson and Georgia is leadership.
This is a consensus All-American, a player who will more than likely be a 1st-round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, who — like it or not — is a player young guys look up to (and model) making a poor decision that could’ve devolved into something much worse. That’s the takeaway on the football side.
It might sound corny and contrived, but that’s one of the things this loaded team lacks: leadership. Who takes those important steps this offseason to lead by example? Dumas-Johnson was absolutely a player the staff wanted to embrace more of that role.
9. Forget about the idea that a small group of SEC schools want an 8-game schedule instead of the majority favored 9-game schedule when Texas and Oklahoma enter the SEC in 2024.
The decision more than likely comes down to the restructured media rights deal with ESPN. The new ESPN-exclusive deal is set to begin in 2024 but was negotiated before Texas and OU joined the conference.
While the SEC and ESPN have been talking about restructuring the deal, they didn’t know until earlier this month that the first year of the 16-team conference would be 2024. Don’t be surprised if both the restructured ESPN media rights deal and a 9-game conference schedule are announced at the same time.
10. Quote to note
Tennessee OC Joey Halzle on QB Joe Milton III: “He doesn’t feel like, ‘I’m an older guy, I got this thing figured out.’ He still attacks his preparation as if he’s a young guy. I want to learn, I want to know everything — and that’s why you see him make the growth that he’s made.”