You couldn’t knock the smile off Garrett Leatham’s face with a hammer. Leatham wasn’t just happy to be at “Meet the Pack” Day this past Sunday, he was grateful for a second chance with the N.C. State football team.
It’s a second chance the former walk-on from Apex has turned into a scholarship and one that he has already made the most of, with his junior and senior seasons still ahead.
“It was a roller-coaster year for me,” Leatham said. “I didn’t even know I was going to come back to the team, but I told myself I was going to give it one more shot.
“It worked out.”
Did it ever. Leatham wasn’t at “Meet the Pack” Day in August 2013. He wasn’t one of the 105 players invited to training camp (the NCAA allows 85 scholarship players and 20 walk-ons to go through the paces of the preseason. More players are allowed to join the team after the fall semester starts).
Leatham was in camp from the start this year and begins the 2014 season second on the depth chart at quarterback, behind junior Jacoby Brissett. Freshman Jalan McClendon is the future at the position, but if all goes according to coach Dave Doeren’s plan, McClendon will be able to redshirt this season and save a year of eligibility for the back end of his career, after Brissett’s two years are up.
McClendon, who is skinny at 6-foot-5 and 195 pounds, is willing to be patient, get stronger and make the most of a redshirt season.
“Whatever the coach wants to do, I’m fine with that,” said McClendon, one of the prizes of the recruiting class out of West Mecklenburg High. “I’ll do whatever is best for the team.”
Leatham’s fine with the plan, too. Despite the initial setback last year, he got into three games during the 2013 season, even threw for a 52-yard touchdown against Boston College in November.
“I like Jalan a lot; he’s a good guy,” Leatham said. “I have no problem helping him out because I know he’s going to be good. I think he can be the ‘Next Big Thing,’ and I want to help him.”
Leatham knows better than most that plans don’t always go the way you want. The 6-4, 220-pound fourth-year junior had a productive high school career at Middle Creek. He threw for more than 7,100 yards and 60 touchdowns in his final two prep seasons.
He got a shot to walk on at N.C. State, under former coaches Tom O’Brien and Dana Bible, and had hoped it would turn out for the best.
“I’m not one of the guys who walked on just to say I was on the football team,” Leatham said. “I walked on because I wanted to have a chance to earn a scholarship.”
The problem for Leatham came in the spring of 2013, after Doeren replaced O’Brien and overhauled the offense. Leatham was admittedly slow in picking up the version of the spread Doeren and offensive coordinator Matt Canada prefer.
“I didn’t have a good spring at all,” Leatham said.
After the spring, Leatham got the news from Doeren, he wouldn’t be in training camp, but if there were any injuries, they would like to bring him back.
About midway through August camp last year, Leatham got the call he was going to get another chance. With starters Brandon Mitchell and Pete Thomas dealing with injuries at different times, Leatham got into three games last season. He played against Central Michigan, Syracuse and Boston College. He completed 9 of 17 passes for 146 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.
Doeren said Leatham has made even more progress since then.
“It’s like night and day,” Doeren said.
There’s still a hurry-up and wait to Leatham’s season. The hope is that Brissett, who redshirted last season after transferring from Florida, can stay healthy. Brissett’s being counted on to have a breakout season, despite making only three college starts in two years at Florida.
There is something of an unknown to Brissett, who excelled in the spring game, but Leatham said the team has confidence in Brissett.
“Jacoby’s going to have a good year,” Leatham said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do. If anything happens, I’ll be ready but if not, I’ll be here to support him the whole way.”