NC State football: Should Pack fans be worried about Devin Leary?
In the record book, it has been the perfect start to the season for the NC State football team.
The Pack is 3-0, and it’s coming off an impressive 27-14 victory over a sneakily good Texas Tech team. The defense has been as superb as advertised. And with UConn the only team left on the nonconference docket, NC State, ranked 12th, almost certainly will be 4-0 as it heads into a marquee matchup with No. 5 Clemson.
The record doesn’t tell the whole story, though, as NC State’s offense has offered some serious signs of concern. The Pack is averaging 384 yards per game and 5.5 yards per play, though those numbers drop significantly to 307 yards per game and 4.8 yards per play during the Pack’s 2 games against Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
And as the offense has struggled early to live up to its 2021 production, so has Devin Leary. The Wolfpack’s veteran quarterback broke the school record for passing touchdowns in a season last year and earned ACC Preseason Player of the Year honors ahead of this season, but his start to this campaign has been fairly pedestrian.
Leary had an exceptional, record-setting day in the 55-3 win against Charleston Southern, but in the Pack’s FBS contests he has struggled. Against East Carolina and Texas Tech, Leary went a combined 32-for-56 (57%) with just 166 passing yards per game, 1 touchdown and 1 interception.
He posted a 109.2 and 109.4 passer rating in those 2 games, respectively, his worst performances by that metric since his freshman season. Through 2020 and 2021 combined, Leary was not held without a passing touchdown in any game and was held to just 1 touchdown 3 times. Now in 2022, he already has had a 1-touchdown game and 0-touchdown game.
But should NC State fans be worried? Or does the overwhelming amount of evidence from Leary’s suggest he’ll be just fine?
The answer likely is a mix of both, as there’s obvious cause for concern while also knowing there are other factors at play.
On the concerning side, Leary hasn’t looked super in sync with his receiving corps this year. On the Pack’s 2nd offensive play of the game against Texas Tech, Leary overthrew an open Keyon Lesane on what likely would have been a deep touchdown pass. And that’s just 1 of many examples of things just not being quite right.
On the other side of that, he hasn’t had a ton of help from his receivers. The Pack dropped 4 passes against the Red Raiders, 1 of which likely would have been a touchdown to Demie Sumo-Karngbaye.
Veteran wideout Devin Carter, the heir apparent to Emeka Emezie as the Pack’s top dog, has just 4 catches for 54 yards. Carter hasn’t been getting the separation anyone would have wanted to see, and he wasn’t even targeted during the Texas Tech game. Thayer Thomas has been fine as Leary’s slot man, but nobody else really has stepped up to offer the quarterback a consistent option as the Wolfpack searches desperately for someone to fill Emezie’s void.
Leary’s “seeing the field,” coach Dave Doeren said. “He’s trying to find chemistry with some new guys, and I think that’s a work in progress still at times. We’re going to get better and better with these young guys, Anthony Smith and Julian (Gray) and Darryl (Jones) being a new player for us. The chemistry with Devin is still in the infant stages. It just takes time.”
Now the Wolfpack has another opportunity for a get-right game against UConn, but it’s a trip to Clemson that awaits NC State after that. For Leary, that game against the Tigers will be a huge determinant in what the season can look like.
But if there’s good news for Wolfpack fans it’s that Leary and the Pack have some similar experiences to lean on from 2021. After starting the season effectively, but certainly not exceptionally, against South Florida, Leary went and struggled to drive the offense in a loss at Mississippi State.
In that game against the Bulldogs, Leary went 30-for-49 with 303 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 pick, though those numbers are a bit inflated. Of his passing yards, 73 came on a late drive with Mississippi State essentially playing prevent defense in a decided game. Leary had a passer rating of just 115.8 that day, his worst of the season.
But what did Leary do to follow that? After a strong performance in a tune-up game against Furman, he threw for 238 yards and 4 touchdowns in the next game against an FBS opponent, against none other than Clemson. Leary completed better than 70% of his passes against the Tigers, had a passer rating near 150 and led the Wolfpack to its first victory over Clemson in 9 years.
Now in 2022, the formula doesn’t look all that different. Leary definitely has struggled more through 3 games this year than he did at the beginning of last season, but there’s also a ton of season still ahead for the man who did throw for 35 touchdowns with just 5 interceptions a year ago.
So, is it time to worry about Devin Leary?
Maybe a little, but the veteran quarterback has more than earned himself a couple more weeks of faith and trust from the fan base. The Pack’s offense is trying to get things right, and it still should feel good about having Leary at the helm.
“Overall, nobody is harder on himself than Devin,” Doeren said. “I told him after the (Texas Tech) game ‘there were times last year where veteran players made veteran plays to help you. Right now we’re trying to make the same plays with guys who aren’t’ veterans at times.’ There’s a plan for that over time that, in my opinion, gets really good.”