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  • Writer's pictureAl Thompson

LOVE OF FOOTBALL RUNS DEEP IN THE LEARY FAMILY

Highland’s Connor Leary is the fourth quarterback in his family’s rich history that can spin a football with the best of them.



Connor Leary hopes to lead Highland Regional High School of Blackwood, NJ to the school's first-ever state title. Photo by Al Thompson.

It’s not hard to imagine why Connor Leary ended up playing football and was drawn to the quarterback position.


Love of football in etched in the DNA of the Leary family.


When you have two first cousins already standouts at that position, who aren’t all that much older than you and live nearby, plus you grew up with a dad who recorded a Hall of Fame career as signal caller at William Paterson University, it’s almost impossible for Connor not to have turned out the way he has.


Devin Leary’s record-setting career at Timber Creek has approached legendary status throughout South Jersey.


Donovan Leary also had a standout career for the Chargers, but was broken up due to the pandemic. That was just a minor setback for Donovan, who is now a FBS quarterback.

Connor’s dad and current coach, Brian Leary, has been the head coach at Highland Regional High School since 2015, after 17 football seasons as an assistant coach at Triton.


“Ever since I was young, I looked up to them,” Tartans starting quarterback Connor Leary said in a recent phone interview with Footballstories. “And my dad played quarterback. So I used to watch my cousins, watch film with my dad. And that always made me want to be a quarterback.


“When I was young, Devin and Donovan, they used to help me all the time with training,” Connor continued, “I always wanted to be a quarterback.”



The Tartans assigned the job of protecting quarterback Connor Leary to some rather large tackles in Billy Taylor (6-foot-2, 285 pounds) and Noah Shields (6-0, 275). Photo submitted.

IRON SHARPENS IRON IN THE LEARY QUARTERBACK ROOM

Leary admitted it was a blessing to be around such talented quarterbacks with his father Brian and two cousins.


A lot of the instincts of the game and the position were second nature by the time Connor enrolled at Highland.


How many kids get to train and play catch with the Atlantic Coast Conference 2022 preseason MVP? Devin was playing that well after the 2021 season with NC State.



Donovan Leary is likely going to vie for the starting quarterback position this fall for the University of Illinois in the Big 10. Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois Athletic Department.


“It definitely helps,” Connor said. “Cause ever since I was young, first my dad, he used to help all three of us become quarterbacks. And as we started to grow recently and all through high school; me and Donovan always used to hit the field together, we always trained. I always send my film to Devin…he gives me evaluations. It just makes me better.”


Connor said he watched Devin at NC State over the last three years. The oldest Leary suffered a season-ending shoulder injury vs. Florida State. The Wolfpack were 5-1 and ranked in the top-15 of both The Associated Press and Coaches’ Poll at the time of his injury.


Devin decided to take his skills to Kentucky for his final season of eligibility. He will slide into the starting quarterback spot vacated by Wildcat star Will Levis, who expects to go early on the first round of the NFL Draft.



Former NC State State standout Devin Leary decided, after a shoulder injury ended his 2022 season after six games, to transfer to Kentucky for his final season. Photo courtesy of UK Athletics.

Leary left NC State ranked sixth in school history with 6,807 career passing yards and fourth in career completion percentage (.602). He was 17-9 as a starter at NC State.


“He did great there,” Connor said. “But he'll do big things like Kentucky too. They’re playing all big schools, Alabama, Auburn…it’s all NFL. “


Donovan will enter the 2023 season as a red shirt freshman at the University of Illinois. He expects to compete for the starting position.


Could Illinois face Kentucky in a Bowl game? Yes...three bowls have Big 10-SEC tie-ins. The Vrbo Citrus Bowl, the Outback Bowl and TransPerfect Music City Bowl. But we are getting a little ahead of ourselves.


HIGHLAND COULD BE HEADED FOR A SPECIAL 2023 SEASON

For the 2022 season, Connor Leary was 95 of 152 for 1,610 yards, 15 touchdowns and three interceptions. He also rushed for five touchdowns.


The Tartans went 6-5 overall including a first round playoff win over Manasquan 32-7. Highland dropped a tough 29-28 decision to Seneca in the Group 3 second round.


Connor said 2022 was a roller-coaster season for the Tartans.



Connor Leary says he wants to play for a college program that wants him first and foremost. Photo by Al Thompson

“We started off 0-3,” Connor said. “We knew we were a good team, we just didn’t know why we were 0-3. So we really had to bring it together and play as a team.”


The leadership on the Tartans roster stepped up at that point to turn the season around.

“We went on a win streak,” Leary said. “We went 5-0 [to finish the regular season]. We won the first playoff game then lost in the semi-finals.”


Connor said he and his teammates will use the second half of last season and playoff loss as a starting point for next season.


“Things didn’t go our way against Seneca,” Leary said of the game that was decided by a two-point conversion by the Golden Eagles. “That just gave us motivation for next year.”


Leary said he is looking forward to teaming up with many of his returning teammates including senior-to-be running back Nehemiah Butler-Mayhew (AKA “Nemo”) who in 2022 rushed 107 times for 841 yards and eight touchdowns.


“Yeah, he makes it way easier for me takes the defensive away,” Leary said. “But also, he's a great receiver so I can trust him and dunk to him.. And we're going to be a good duo this year. He's really good.”


Leary talked about his offensive linemen he expects to return and play a big role in the trenches.


“Billy Taylor, he was my left tackle this year,” Connor said of the 6-foot-2, 285 pounder, who is also a standout wrestler. “He had a really good year as a junior and he'll have an even better year as a senior.”


Leary said the Tartans lost some of their offensive line to graduation. He talked about his returning veterans and other important new faces.


“We lost some linemen, but another one is Noah Shields (6-0, 275),” Connor said. “He's gonna be my right tackle. And he's been working hard all offseason. So he'll have a great year. And he's dedicated so I know he'll be ready.”


His center? Leary said it will be a newcomer.


“Right now we have a couple guys battling it out.”


Coach Leary echoed his son’s list of some of the players who the team will lean on in 2023. They include free safety/running backs Xavier Miller and Matt Tuttle plus DE/WR, Elijah Thompson (a junior this year), RB/MLB Tevon Atkins, Jeff Neris (OLB, WR), and (MLB, TE) Javion Payne.


Coach said he expects many new starters to step up and become significant contributors.

Coach Leary said Highland has yet to a team in any sport claim a group or state title. He hopes his squad will be the first to break the ice.


He said the Tartans have been one win from a sectional final several times


“We’ve been in that position four times,” Coach said. “We’ve never gotten to a final. In fact, the school has never been to a final. That is presented to us this year. We have a good opportunity to do that. We have some really good players in our program.”


FOOTBALL 24/7 – HOW DO THE LEARY’S HANDLE IT?

If you follow the time-line on Brian Leary’s coaching resume, he was holding a clip board and watching film before Connor was born.


Brian, who had a standout career at William Patterson as a quarterback, was inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame in 1997.


According to wpupioneers.com, Leary is William Paterson’s all-time passing leader with 271 completions out of 538 attempts, 3,359 yards and 17 touchdowns.


He is one of only two Pioneers to have thrown over 3,000 yards and compiled a 21-13-1 record (.617 winning pct.), best ever for a WPC quarterback.


Brian Leary talked about the joys and challenges of coaching his son, especially at the quarterback position.


“It is [a challenge and a joy],” Brian Leary said. “I’ve never coached my son in football. There were some challenges in the beginning that presented itself. You have to learn when you need to turn it on and turn it off. Because now, you’re living in the same house with the quarterback.


Sometimes we didn’t know that…me and Connor. We didn’t really know where that boundary was. We always had it as a father/son relationship at home. It took a little time to get used to.”


Coach Leary said his role with Connor has evolved as his son has learned the game and become accomplished enough to be named to several Southern New Jersey All Star teams as a junior.


“Having the ability for him to be a three-year starter for us, now it’s gotten to a point where we both feel comfortable with the situation,” Coach Leary said. “We can turn [football] off to be a father/son relationship. And of course there’s times at home where we talk football, watch film…we’re a lot more comfortable in that situation now.


“It was difficult because he was a first-year starter…sometimes it came over into the household. Now it’s a really neat situation now.”


That he is a standout player not just at Highland, but throughout the area, help with keeping a balance with the feelings of other players on the team?


“It does,” Brian said. “Now he’s seeing things, he giving his recommendations on things as the game has slowed down for him. He sees it better. Now it’s turned from one-sided of me telling him…now it’s more of a discussion. We can do that now.”

Connor was asked how he handles having his father double as his head coach.


“We handle it pretty good,” Leary said. “He wants me to be great. So it pushes me to be great. Like after practice, after games we're watching film together at the house, talk about what I can do better what I did good and as we can move forward as a team and what we can do to win.”


This is his senior year coming up. His high school football relationship with his father is going to end soon. They have worked together for years.


“Yeah, I'm definitely sad that it’s almost over,” Connor said. “But we got to go out with a bang.”


WINNING A TITLE AND MOVING TO THE NEXT LEVEL

The NJSIAA now crowns a champion in just seven groups: Five for public schools, two for nonpublic.


According to both Coach Leary and Connor, they feel the Tartans have the roster to grab the brass right for the first time.


“That's definitely our goal,” Connor said. “Because as a school, they never won sectional championships. They never even made it there. So ever since I got the Highland, that's been my main goal. So this year, I definitely think we can achieve that. That's our main goal, to win the state championship.”


The Leary’s define love of football. It is one of the most important elements scouts and coaches at the college and pro level look for. Connor was asked to put his love of football into words.


“Since I got in high school,” Leary said. “This grind is way different. I love going to practice. I love competing. I love hitting the weights. I just love football. I love working and I just want to win. And that's the main reason.”


What will determine where Connor plays football at the college level? He is good in the classroom, so the interest is up and down the scale of programs interested in him.


“Yeah, I definitely want to play football at the next level,” the 6-2, 175 pounder said. “And right now I'm just taking my visits and I'm letting the process play out and have fun. I'm just gonna land at what's best for me, the best fit. I am looking for the best coaching staff that just make me feel like family…just go where I can play football and be loved.” *


Devin Leary stats: ukathletics.com


Email Al Thompson at al.thompson@footballstories.com

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