For all the talk of Devin Leary preparing to play in a new offense since he transferred from N.C. State to Kentucky, it was easy to forget the Wildcats new quarterback was also returning from injury.
Leary’s 2022 season at N.C. State ended on Oct. 8 due to a torn pectoral muscle. When he took the field for UK against Ball State Saturday it had been almost 11 months since he played in a game.
“It kind of hit me, though, right as we were running out that it has been a little while, since last October going down,” Leary said after a 44-14 victory. “But I wouldn’t really say I was too nervous. Felt really prepared going into this game. A couple throws got away from me a little bit, but felt good. It felt good to be in Kroger Field playing in blue.”
Leary completed 18 of 31 passes for 241 yards, one touchdown and one interception in his Kentucky debut.
There were highlights, like the 45-yard completion to Dane Key on his first pass attempt as a Wildcat, but it was also a performance that fell short of the ever-growing preseason hype.
Operation issues across the offense, including miscommunications in pass protection, poor snaps and incorrect receiver routes make it difficult to judge Leary individually, but his halftime stat line (8 for 20 for 144 yards, no touchdowns and one interception) was well short of what Leary and Kentucky coaches expected.
“Devin will improve a great deal,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “You can see the talent that he has. It’s not always on the quarterback. As we talked about, it’s protections, being on the same page, executing. We need to clean up some things.
“Devin will improve. He’s a heck of a football player. We just all got to do a better job.”
Thanks in part to a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown and a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, Kentucky’s offense was limited to just 51 plays on the afternoon. The offense had just three drives in the second half.
Leary performed better in Kentucky’s limited second half opportunities, completing 10 of 11 passes for 97 yards and one touchdown.
“I’m always my biggest critic,” Leary said. “Whether I go 19 for 20, I’m still going to critique myself on that one incompletion. That’s just how I am, that’s how I’ve always been.
“For me, I just know how much better I can be. I know today was not my 100% best performance or what I want to showcase each and every week, but at the end of the day you’re still happy walking away with the win.”
Leary’s ability to keep plays alive under pressure was on display multiple times in the opener, but the perfect throws into tight windows frequently cited by teammates and coaches during preseason camp were largely missing.
Leary sailed a few throws. Offensive coordinator Liam Coen called Leary’s one interception “an awful play call,” but Leary took the blame for that play, too. On at least a couple of occasions, Leary called the wrong play on his wristband in the huddle in his first game in Coen’s pro-style offense.
“It’s his first game back in a long time playing football, so I was just glad to see him having fun playing football again,” Coen said. “I know he’s a little frustrated in the moment, but we’ll get that turned around quick.”
The good news for Leary is Kentucky’s deep stable of receiving options was on display with seven players catching passes. Leary was sacked just once in the game and was particularly effective in situations where Coen increased the tempo.
But the competition level will increase, too.
The September schedule sets up in a way for Leary and the rest of the new faces in Kentucky’s locker room to ease into action, but the clock is now ticking to improve the offensive performance in time for Southeastern Conference play.
Leary dismissed the suggestion that rust was a factor in any struggles Saturday. While he acknowledged some extra excitement in experiencing Kentucky’s pregame festivities for the first time, he said nerves were not an issue.
Still, the long layoff and challenge of learning a new offense suggests Leary’s performance will improve as he grows more comfortable at Kentucky.
“It’s my job to be a better point guard, it’s my job to do better at distributing the ball to those guys,” he said. “There were certain plays I think I did pretty well, but there were also tons I wish I could get back.
“But that’s just me not playing the game for a little while, kind of being a little hard on myself, my biggest critic.”
Eastern Kentucky at Kentucky
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
TV: SEC Network Plus (online only)
Records: UK 1-0, EKU 0-1
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Series: UK leads 5-0
Last meeting: UK won 27-16 on Sept. 9, 2017, in Lexington