SICKLERVILLE, N.J. -- After starting one career game in which he threw two interceptions and completed 37% of his passes, NC State quarterback Devin Leary bounded into the office of coach Dave Doeren in the fall of 2019.
Leary, then a redshirt freshman, made a simple declaration that proved equal parts aspirational and asinine.
"We're going to beat Clemson," he brashly declared.
The Tigers won 55-10 the next game, Leary failed to throw a touchdown pass and the arc of how far he needed to go to become a top-flight college quarterback began to form that day. The false bravado and unfounded confidence needed to be replaced by the real thing, a result earned by spending more time in the NC State football offices than some assistant coaches.
From the time Leary committed to NC State in 2017, he had boldly asserted he'd lead a team that could beat the Tigers. Leary grew up in a football-mad family in New Jersey, with his dad, Glen, serving as president of the local youth league. Even after rewriting the high school record books in New Jersey, his friends looked at him cross-eyed when he declared he could go on to college and topple Clemson.
Leary knew enough football to know just how unlikely that statement was. Clemson was fresh off a national title and State amid a streak in which it lost 15 of 16 games to the Tigers. He just didn't know how far he'd have to come to get them there -- toiling as a third-stringer, enduring a broken fibula, losing his starting job to quarantine and shuffling through three offensive coordinators -- to close the gap from aspiration to reality.
Last season, Leary broke out as one of the country's top quarterbacks, throwing 35 touchdown passes, just five interceptions and began emerging in the NC State record book with the likes of Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson and Jacoby Brissett. If Leary replicates his 2021 season, he could enter the high-end NFL draft conversation, as Doeren cites his cannon arm and portfolio of production when arguing he's "the best quarterback in the country."
He's 6-foot-1, 215 pounds and throws what NC State quality control coach Kriss Proctor colorfully refers to as "piss missiles."
"He's got as much arm talent as I've ever seen," says Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz, who recruited Leary to NC State. "He has Josh Allen arm talent."
The rocket arm and blind ambition eventually collided in 2021. Leary threw four touchdown passes to help NC State slay the dragon, leading the Wolfpack to a 27-21 double-overtime win over Clemson last season to snap an eight-game losing streak to the Tigers.
Leary's family describes him as a personality paradox. He cares a lot about his looks and little about his image. Leary will get two haircuts on a two-week trip home and not be able to sit at the family dinner table facing the glass sliding door because he looks at himself in the reflection too much. At the same time, he's ambivalent about social media and mocks the athletes who feel required to post their workouts on Instagram.
His task for his senior year is both simple and daunting: Change the way the country looks at him and NC State.
Leary returned for his fifth college season to help lead NC State to the school's first ACC title since 1979, the final stage of a career that has traversed the canyon from cocky high school kid to Heisman hopeful. The Wolfpack return 18 starters and start the season tied for the school's highest-ever preseason ranking at No. 13.
After broken bones, humbling losses and a true education in quarterback play, Leary has accumulated enough wins and credibility to make bold predictions that no longer sound brash.
"I think it could be the best team," Leary said, "to ever come through NC State."
Pull up to the Leary family home in a well-manicured neighborhood in Sicklerville, N.J., and there's a basketball hoop nearly collapsed on the lawn. It hangs like a tired oak, seemingly under the weight of too many neighborhood games.
The signs on the kitchen wall illuminate the rollicking nature of the ethos that Devin grew up with, as the second of five siblings -- Andrew Willard (28), Devin (22), Shannon (21), Donovan (18) and Riley (16). Glen and Lorie Leary greet a stranger with quick smiles and quicker wit.
Glen is a divorce attorney who sarcastically encapsulates his work this way: Your misery is my pleasure.
The signs on the wall near the kitchen sum up the family vibe nicely:
Our family must be God's favorite sitcom.
Life is Short, Smile While You Still Have Teeth.
Smile, There's Beer.
The depths of the family's fidelity to football is revealed quickly. Glen played at Susquehanna University, is the son of a longtime youth coach and brother of a prominent local high school coach. Glen served as a key figure with the Gloucester Township Stallions -- not the Lions, he makes clear -- for 15 years, serving at times as the president and head coach. During that time, he coached the 10- and 11-year-old team. Why that age? "They're not so little that they can't understand, and they're not too old where they won't listen," he said.
Leary comes from a family that takes football -- but not themselves -- seriously. They delight in telling a story about their son making a serious confession at a family breakfast a few years after arriving at NC State. "I say y'all now," he declared, before even saying hello one morning.
But the background that cultivated Leary being able to close the gap between aspirational star and established one can best be summarized by the story of the birth of his sister, Shannon, who is now a senior at Florida.
Lorie: She was born during a championship game. I forgot about that. I was home. I waited for him to come home.
Did he leave early?
Glen: No, we finished the game.
By age 4, Devin knew the name and number of every player on the Philadelphia Eagles, which is the favored NFL franchise in South Jersey. To say he grew up on the sideline wouldn't be an exaggeration, as he was a fixture at Gloucester Township youth games and his uncle Brian Leary's high school games around South Jersey.
His sisters were cheerleaders at the youth games, and it wasn't uncommon for the Leary family to log double-digit hours on the weekends at the field. Lorie hawked crab fries and mozzarella sticks at the concession stand.
It turns out the best prospect among them also grew up in his house. Devin Leary's arm talent became apparent early, but there was a question of which arm. He writes lefty and might have thrown that way. But when throwing a baseball with his older brother around age 5, there wasn't a glove to accommodate a lefty. So he switched arms, and laughs "not even knowing I was going to be right-handed the rest of my life."
The talent flashed early, as evidenced by the eighth-grade highlights that still exist on YouTube. Leary posted them himself -- with Kid Ink providing the soundtrack -- and amid the numberless fields and mismatched uniforms there's enough frozen ropes and connected go routes to overshadow the modest cinematography and occasional pole blocking a touchdown.
His high school decision became a matter of significant local interest, as Glen recalls multiple private schools -- even those 25 miles away in Philadelphia -- recruiting him. He stayed home and followed his friends to the local public school, Timber Creek, where he was attracted to following his friends and playing for accomplished coach Rob Hinson.
That decision grounded him further in the community, where his dad's dedication to youth football in Gloucester Township both laid the foundation of football and expectation of work ethic.
"The amount of time and effort he put in not just to me and my family, but the whole community," Leary said of his father. "He's made an impact on so many kids' lives. I can't tell you how much I love and appreciate my dad. He really is my hero."
Devin Leary's development curve accelerated significantly upon entering Hinson's Timber Creek program, which embraced the chaos of an up-tempo spread while operating with strict discipline.
Hinson served 25 years in the Air Force and retired a master sergeant, which carried over. "We had no fun, no visors, no headgear," Hinson said. "Everybody had white shoes. The joke was the happiest day of everybody's life in Timber Creek is when they go to college."
Leary recalled a player showing up two minutes late to the hotel lobby on a camp trip and Hinson having the entire team do 150 up-downs in the mud before a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride. One time after a 41-0 win, Hinson wasn't happy with the performance, and the team did 100 up-downs on concrete. With their pads on.
The results followed the rigor. Leary threw for 9,672 yards and 117 touchdowns and won state Gatorade Player of the Year as a junior and senior. The arm talent, devastating offense and strict discipline paved the way for his football life to carry on beyond South Jersey.
"That's the standard," Leary said of Hinson. "That's what he held us to. I'm so grateful for him making us do that. Playing there was the best decision I could have made in my life, the way he coached our team, it disciplined me for life both mentally and physically."
The high school experience combined with a childhood where football was "ingrained" set him up for both success in college and the required diligence to achieve it.
And it almost didn't happen at NC State. Six months after he committed, an awkward moment emerged during his home visit. Eliah Drinkwitz, then the NC State offensive coordinator, was in the Leary living room the night that news broke that Doeren was considering taking the Tennessee job. As he spoke to the family, the news of Doeren's potential departure streamed on ESPN's Bottom Line.
The moment provided a fitting chaotic culmination of a recruitment filled with twists, beginning with a first scholarship offer that came from then-Temple coach Matt Rhule after Leary's freshman year. When the call came, Leary thanked Rhule, hung up the phone and asked: "What's an offer?"
From there, Glen's legal instincts took over. To show how it unfolded, he pulls out a lawyerly brown folder labeled "RECRUITING" filled with quarterback "depth charts" written on the blank side of old menus from the snack stand. Every school recruiting Devin had its own sheet, and it was filled chronologically with who they offered and when.
To Glen, that signified the priority of his son's recruitment compared to others they might have offered before or after. (Glen did the same thing with youngest son Donovan's recruitment in 2021, which resulted in him choosing to play quarterback at Illinois.)
"I have NC State, Penn State, BC," Glen said, flipping through his handiwork. "And I was doing the same thing for Donovan -- Virginia Tech, Temple, Rutgers."
Leary camped at Penn State before his junior year, and he recalls being one of three quarterbacks out of 75 being called up after performing well to meet James Franklin. The family waited two hours outside Franklin's office, watching both Justin Fields and Quincy Patterson leave with offers.
Leary got just a pep talk, which didn't sit well. He ended up narrowing in on NC State, Maryland, Baylor and Pitt. When Fields ended up decommitting from Penn State, they called back. Leary said no thanks.
True to his training, he stayed disciplined when Doeren flirted with Tennessee. That ended up reinforcing the bond of the recruiting class that became the teammates he'd end up making history with. They doubled down on each other, the first step toward the history they are trying to make this season.
"I'm really, really fortunate I didn't make a different move based off of stuff I was reading," Leary said. "Everything did end up working out."
These days, Leary cruises through NC State's campus in a white 2022 GMC Terrain. "NIL changed my life," he says after finally finding a reliable ride.
Early in his college career, Leary didn't have a car. His scheduled 6 a.m. Uber rides frequently landed incomplete, as he attempted to navigate the spread-out logistics of NC State's campus. Leary even bought a teammate's 2004 Acura for $1,500, a lemon with a balky front tire axle that collapsed twice while he was driving.
Leary has emerged as the face of NC State, but the ride hasn't been linear. Along the way he didn't mesh with coaches, dug his way out of third string, lost his starting job because of an untimely quarantine in 2020 and then broke his fibula later that year. The final step between the ideal of beating Clemson and reality came from finding joy in the work required for smooth trips in the pocket.
If there's a criticism of Leary at NC State, it's that he cares too much. He'll sit frozen at his locker after practice, staring at the film of bad plays on his phone. After a game, he'll often rewatch critical parts on film before he emerges to meet his family. The coaching staff openly acknowledges that Leary spends more time working in the facility than many of the coaches themselves.
Leary's true freshman year, he got thrown in with the first team in practice and quickly discovered how far behind he really was. His first pass got batted down at the line of scrimmage. And he lasted just one series before getting yanked by Drinkwitz for performing poorly. He couldn't argue with him. Finley, who went on to be a fourth-round NFL draft pick in 2019, slid back in and completed his next four passes, breezily tossing the ball around the field.
"That was definitely a turning point for me," Leary said. "How badly did I love football? Obviously going into the season third string, it's easy to take a backseat and wait until next year. I really had to challenge myself, 'How are you going to prepare like a starter each and every week, even if you are third string?'"
As that year went on, more realizations came to Leary. He knew his raw talent wouldn't carry him the same way it did in high school. He went from eager to play immediately to grateful for the time to learn under Finley, who approached things like a pro.
"I look back and realize that I needed to understand defenses before I can do anything," he said. "My arm strength isn't going to get me by. I need to understand defenses and anticipate a lot more."
Early on in a spring practice, back before the pandemic roiled the sport in March 2020, first-year NC State offensive coordinator Tim Beck called the team together early in the second spring practice and stunned Leary with his reaction. "Dude, we're not having any fun," Beck recalled telling the team. "Let's go. We're a good team."
After practice, Leary walked off the field with him and Beck recalls him saying, "Coach, how come you didn't yell at us?"
Nothing worked well for Leary in 2019, as NC State sputtered to 4-8 and Leary did little in spot duty to announce himself as the quarterback of the future. He completed 48.1% of his passes, and NC State lost all five of his starts. NC State finished 4-8 and an offensive overhaul was on the way.
The trajectory changed for Leary after 2019, as Doeren hired Beck, who recognized Leary's competitiveness and realized better how to harness it.
Beck found that the quarterback group had been "battered" by the lack of success and the tenor of the prior offensive staff, operating with a vibe that "you can't make a mistake."
He learned soon that Leary cared so much about football -- perhaps too much -- that he needed more guidance and encouragement. "If he has a bad practice, he'll watch that three or four times," Beck said. "He'll say, 'Coach, what about play eight?' He won't be able to sleep. He's driven by it. He loves it."
As he endured and grew, Leary didn't waver on focusing on his development. As he bided his time, Leary overhauled his throwing motion, which is a detailed and painstaking process.
Leary evolved from a long windup, like a baseball pitcher, to a shorter front step so he could quicken the motion and throw with more touch. Proctor, a former Navy quarterback, has been at NC State for Leary's entire tenure and describes the overhaul this way: "He was like a Jugs machine, throwing piss missiles and frozen ropes. He had to go from a thrower, to a passer who passes to complete the ball. There's a big difference, when you throw it as hard as he does, it's hard to learn to throw with touch."
Along with the motion change, Leary eventually evolved his study habits of opposing defenses to get to level that he observed Finley. He comes to the NC State football offices on his own, an L.A. Dodgers cap on backward, a stash of sunflower seeds in his mouth and the remote in his hand.
On Sundays, Leary watches three or four games of the upcoming opponents. Mondays are for traditional first- and second-down looks, Tuesdays for all the third-down situations and Wednesdays for situational football like red zone, two-minute and four-minute drills. On Thursdays, he'll watch another game or two now that he has got a feel for everything the coordinator does.
Proctor stresses there "was no epiphany" for Leary, but committing to doing this on his own for hundreds of hours added up to having the right understanding of the game. The kind of work you can't post on Instagram is what Leary lost himself in.
"Playing quarterback or being a chess master or hitting a baseball all come down to pattern recognition," Proctor said. "You see patterns and make decisions off those patterns. That comes from thousands of hours of looking at something and learning something."
When the patterns became clear, so did Leary's path to stardom.
Proctor tees up a play from last year's opener, a 45-0 rout of South Florida, to showcase Leary's rare arm talent.
NC State often runs four vertical routes, and teams typically play two deep safeties against it. It's rare for a quarterback to throw to the outside receiver against that look. Simply put, the distance the ball has to travel is too much, allowing the safety to recover and track it down.
But three or four times last season, Leary executed the type of throws that make offensive coordinators gasp. That included a bomb against USF that traveled 52 vertical yards in the air to receiver Devin Carter. What made that throw more impressive was Leary threw it from the left hash to beyond the right-side numbers, meaning it traveled at least 70 yards. "I've never coached anyone who can make that throw," Proctor said. "He's just different."
And one of the things that Leary is most proud of, in retrospect, is how he has carved a different path to get there. With younger brother Donovan enrolling at Illinois this summer and expected to have to climb up from third-string quarterback, Leary has offered advice through experience.
"He breaks down both paths," Donovan says. "He's like, 'If you want to go to school and you want to hang out with all your friends and party and do all that stuff, he was like, 'That's fine.' But he was like, 'There's a whole other side that you can do, and you can get to this point where he's at now.'"
A huge part of that point is beating Clemson, something Donovan recalls his brother consistently predicting he'd do when they were home in 2020 finding ways to work out during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now that Leary has beaten Clemson and returned for his fifth season, the goals are bigger. There's that ACC title more than a generation in the waiting, fulfilling his hope that this will be the best team in school history and cementing himself as a top draft pick.
The NFL remains cautiously optimistic about Leary, as a handful of scouts polled by ESPN projected between the third and fifth round, noting they want to see him process faster and make better decisions. There's a dense crop of quarterbacks in front of him, but there's also a path to the first round paved by another South Jersey native. Pitt's Kenny Pickett won a league title, lit up the ACC and took the culmination of all he'd learned to make a giant leap in is fifth year.
Ultimately, team success looms as one of the biggest variables in quarterbacks changing their draft realities. And for Leary, living up to his latest bold proclamation would lead both NC State football and his own draft stock into rare air.