Why Devin Leary’s biggest challenge this spring might not have been clear at open practice

·4 min read

On a windy afternoon at the Kentucky football practice fields it was difficult to learn much about the Wildcats passing attack as Mark Stoops opened a spring practice to fans and reporters Saturday.

N.C. State quarterback transfer Devin Leary has received strong reviews in his first spring as a Wildcat. His decision making was on display Saturday with several quick reads to complete short passes when the wind took away much of the deep passing game, but he did throw one interception that might not have stood up to replay review in an actual game as safety Jordan Lovett appeared to bobble the ball as he went to the ground.

We already know Leary can play quarterback, though. His last healthy season in 2021 saw him throw 35 touchdowns and five interceptions to be named one of five finalists for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, which goes to college football’s best quarterback.

What we don’t yet know about Leary is how quickly he can take control in a locker room missing most of the veteran leaders who played key roles the last two years.

“I think he’s a very natural leader,” Stoops said Saturday. “He’s trying not to force it. He’s trying to earn the respect of his team and just get out there and make sure he masters his craft in his backyard at this point, but definitely has the leadership skills.”

Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary throws a pass at the team’s open practice on Saturday.
Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary throws a pass at the team’s open practice on Saturday.

In a perfect scenario, Leary would not be rushed into a leadership role even though he was recruited to replace Will Levis as the Wildcats’ starting quarterback.

Like Levis did as a transfer two years ago, Leary must first prove to his new teammates worthy of that mantle. Incorporating transfers into a team is an essential part of coaching in the era of the transfer portal, but newcomers ignoring the dynamics of the locker room they are entering is a surefire way to create strife.

But with Levis and linebackers DeAndre Square and Jacquez Jones exhausting their college eligibility, Kentucky does not boast the type of veteran leadership that would allow Leary to ease into that role.

“We have no leaders right now,” Stoops said a week ago in a fiery exchange with reporters in which he also said, “We’ve got a bunch of guys that are entitled and don’t work extremely hard.”

Stoops said Saturday he was pleased with the way his team responded to that challenge this week, but it is clear more work is needed.

“At times when a voice needs to be heard, if I need to step up into that role, that’s a step I need to take,” Leary said. “I need to be better. I need to continue to work on my craft every day and earn those guys’ respect, but at the same time emerge into the role that they expect me to be.”

Leary’s teammates report plenty of work from the Wildcats’ new quarterback behind the scenes already.

Sophomore wide receiver Dane Key was wowed by how quickly Leary learned the vast majority of his new teammates’ names. Senior wide receiver Tayvion Robinson reported seeing Leary’s car at the practice facility almost every time he drives by Kroger Field.

“He’s more of a lead-by-example, trying to do the right things,” offensive coordinator Liam Coen said. “He’s trying to learn the offense and all that. By nature, he’s not really a fiery guy. He’s up here every single day with all the wideouts and all the tight ends watching film. He does all the right things in terms of the things we’re asking the quarterback to do.

“Once, I think, after spring he gains a little bit more of these guys’ respect and has relationships with those guys I think he can maybe take the next step from a leadership standpoint.”

The good news for Kentucky is the season opener is still five months away. Leary already has a head start on Levis, who did not arrive on campus until the summer before his first season as a Wildcat.

Stoops’ frank assessment of the lack of leadership this spring has upped the ante, though. Whether Leary and the other Wildcat veterans are able to set the tone needed for summer workouts could say much about the 2023 season.

“All eyes are on you, so you’ve got to carry yourself in the right manner,” Leary said. “It reflects on your team. You’ve got to do a good job every single day. Regardless of what you have going on, as soon as you step between those lines nothing else matters besides your team. We have to do a better job of taking that approach every single day, and it starts with me.”

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