Whether Kentucky football’s full transfer class is able to take the field for spring practice has yet to be determined.
Former North Carolina State quarterback Devin Leary and former Northern Illinois left tackle Marques Cox, both projected to start for the Wildcats in the fall, expressed optimism about the status of their rehabilitation from injuries that ended their 2022 seasons early in interviews with reporters Wednesday but stopped short of placing a specific timetable for their return to the field.
UK Coach Mark Stoops previously said he expected both players to be available for at least part of spring practice but said he was unsure if either would be limited.
“Absolutely on schedule,” Leary said Wednesday. “I feel really good. Really just taking it day by day and making sure I’m following the doctors’ protocols and listening to the trainers in the training room. The strength and conditioning staff just keeping me on pace. But right now I’m in a really good spot.”
Leary entered the 2022 season as the preseason ACC Player of the Year and a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate, but his season ended after just six games when he tore the pectoral muscle on his right side in an Oct. 8 game against Florida State. The injury required surgery just more than a month later.
The torn pectoral muscle was the second major injury for Leary, who also saw his 2020 season end early due to a fractured fibula.
“Honestly, it was just two freak accidents,” Leary said. “It can be frustrating, but that’s the game we sign up to play. It’s a violent sport. At the end of the day, I’m still grateful to be here. Still grateful to be around awesome doctors, awesome trainers to where I’m standing here in front of you today getting ready to play this season. Obviously in the moment it’s very unfortunate, but at the same time, I’m a guy that lives by everything happens for a reason. I know I’ll bounce back and play better than I ever have before.”
In his only full season as N.C. State’s starting quarterback, Leary threw for 3,433 yards with 35 touchdowns and five interceptions in 12 games in 2021. That season, he was named one of five finalists for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, which goes to college football’s best quarterback.
Leary was recruited to replace Will Levis as Kentucky’s starting quarterback. With a lack of experienced backup options, his return to full strength is essential for Kentucky’s 2022 outlook.
Even if Leary is healthy though, Kentucky will need improvement on an offensive line that ranked 126th of 131 teams nationally in sacks allowed last season.
Cox, along with Alabama transfer Tanner Bowles, were signed to help boost that group. A healthy Cox would allow Kenneth Horsey, who plans to return to UK for his pandemic season of eligibility in 2023, to move from left tackle, where he played out of necessity in 2022, to his natural left guard position.
Cox started 33 games at left tackle across five seasons at Northern Illinois. That experience immediately makes him the favorite to start at left tackle for Kentucky this fall, but he faces his own injury questions.
The 6-foot-5, 305-pound lineman played in just four games in 2022 before suffering a season-ending foot injury against Kentucky when Northern Illinois played at Kroger Field in September.
“It’s definitely surreal, definitely an ironic moment, but at the same time every blessing comes in disguise,” Cox said when asked about returning to the stadium where he was injured. “Maybe that was the blessing that got me here.”
While attempting to block Kentucky linebacker Jacquez Jones, Cox tore ligaments between his big toe and middle toe. He was walking without any protective equipment on his foot Wednesday but is declining to look too far ahead in his rehabilitation.
“Just day-by-day process, seeing what I can do, seeing what I can’t do,” he said. “Just taking it day by day right now.”
Leary and Cox have at least a month to continue their recoveries before spring practice, which usually starts in early March.
Until then, there is other work both players can do to make an impact in the locker room.
“This is now my third week here, so really just being able to get around the guys and really just prove to them through my hard work and prove to them I’m eager to be here, I’m very happy to be here,” Leary said. “But at the same time, it’s an honor and a privilege to be here, so I need to prove to them that I’m going to put in the work. It takes a lot of time, but I’m very serious at the same time. It’s grabbing those guys on the side and diving into the playbook, watching extra film and building that camaraderie right now.”