Could Kentucky football actually have the SEC’s best QB? Reporters high on Devin Leary.

For most of the history of Kentucky football, losing a second-round NFL Draft pick at quarterback would almost certainly have left the Wildcats scrambling to find a replacement.

But as Will Levis begins his professional career, the transfer portal, the return of Liam Coen as offensive coordinator and heavy turnover across the Southeastern Conference have combined to place Mark Stoops’ program in an unexpected position of strength.

Could Kentucky actually have one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC even after losing Levis?

“You just watched the film and you could see his ability and how good he is,” Stoops said of North Carolina State transfer Devin Leary on the final day of spring practice. “Coming in here, I’ve been impressed.”

Leary was the top available quarterback in the transfer portal when he committed to Kentucky, according to multiple national rankings. He brings a concerning injury history to Lexington, but when healthy Leary has already proven himself as one of the most productive quarterbacks in the country.

After throwing for 35 touchdowns and five interceptions in 2021, Leary was named one of five finalists for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, which goes to college football’s top quarterback. In his college career, Leary has completed 60.2% of his passes for 6,807 yards, 62 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in 30 games.

North Carolina State transfer Devin Leary was named 2022 Preseason ACC Player of the Year but saw his season end early due to a torn pectoral muscle.

Meanwhile, Levis was part of a wave of outgoing quarterback talent in the SEC.

Alabama (Bryce Young) and Florida (Anthony Richardson) lost top-five picks at the position. Georgia lost two-time national champion quarterback Stetson Bennett. Hendon Hooker, arguably the most productive quarterback in the league last season before his season-ending ACL injury, is gone from Tennessee, too.

Of the top four SEC quarterbacks in passing yards per game last season, only Mississippi State’s Will Rogers returns, but even he faces questions as the Bulldogs move away from the “Air Raid” offense following the death of head coach Mike Leach.

So where does Leary rank among the projected SEC starting quarterbacks? The Herald-Leader polled one beat reporter from each SEC market to answer that question.

Since multiple schools have yet to even name a starter, reporters were asked to rank only their top five quarterbacks in the league heading into the summer. In an illustration of how little consensus there is about the SEC quarterbacks, nine different players received at least one vote. Three different quarterbacks received at least one first-place vote.

Top SEC quarterbacks

1. KJ Jefferson (Arkansas): 59 (8)

2. Jayden Daniels (LSU): 55 (5)

3. Will Rogers (Mississippi State): 42

4. Devin Leary (Kentucky): 25

5. Spencer Rattler (South Carolina): 16

6. Joe Milton (Tennessee): 9 (1)

7. Conner Weigman (Texas A&M): 2

8. Jaxson Dart (Ole Miss): 1

9. Spencer Sanders (Ole Miss): 1

Two reporters ranked Leary second, but the injury history (he is coming off a torn pectoral muscle that ended his 2022 season after six games) combined with some skepticism about how his success in the ACC will translate against SEC defenses appear to be holding him out of the conversation for the top spot for now.

The good news for Leary and Kentucky is he should have enough receiving weapons to prove worthy of a higher ranking if his transfer portal hype is legitimate.

Whether or not Leary moves up the list, there is likely to be heavy turnover in any ranking of SEC quarterbacks between now and the end of the season. No Alabama or Georgia quarterback received a vote in this poll, but there are talented options at both programs in position to shine with a stellar supporting cast. Eight SEC teams have added at least one transfer quarterback so far this offseason.

A year ago, Leary was voted Preseason ACC Player of the Year by reporters. He is unlikely to repeat that accolade in the SEC this summer, but Leary should at least be in the conversation for preseason All-SEC honors in July.

Here is a closer look at how Leary compares to the other quarterbacks who received votes from the SEC reporters in our poll.

KJ Jefferson

The SEC’s leader in returning total offensive yards per game (289.9), Jefferson has established himself as one of the league’s top dual threats with back-to-back strong seasons as the Razorbacks’ starter. Last season, he completed 68% of his passes for 2,648 yards, 24 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also gained 640 yards and nine touchdowns on 158 carries.

Jayden Daniels

Daniels took a significant step forward last season after transferring from Arizona State to LSU. He completed 68.6% for his passes for 2,913 yards, 17 touchdowns and three interceptions while rushing for 885 yards and 11 touchdowns on 186 carries. Those numbers were similar to his freshman season at Arizona State, offering hope his 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as a junior were a fluke.

Will Rogers

Why did the SEC’s 2022 leader in passing yards per game not receive any first-place votes? Rogers already faced doubts from critics who attributed his 335 passing yards per game across the last two seasons as a byproduct of Mississippi State’s “Air Raid” offense, and now the Bulldogs are moving away from that system. Rogers will have a chance to prove he is more than a system quarterback this fall.

Spencer Rattler

No quarterback on this list came to college with more hype, but after being benched at Oklahoma, Rattler, the No. 1 ranked quarterback in the high school class of 2019, transferred to South Carolina. While Rattler still fell short of his recruiting hype last season, he bounced back nicely from the disappointing 2021 with 3,026 passing yards, 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

Joe Milton

A former Michigan transfer, Milton offered reason for excitement when he stepped in as Tennessee’s starter following Hooker’s ACL injury last season. In the Orange Bowl win over Miami, Milton passed for 251 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Milton will need to carry over that momentum to 2023 to quiet calls for early playing time for five-star freshman Nico Iamaleava.

Conner Weigman

Votes for Weigman were likely a bet on a possible breakout star this fall. Despite playing in just five games last season, the former five-star recruit earned Freshman All-America honors from ESPN. He completed 55.3% of his passes for 896 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions in those five games, including four starts.

Jaxson Dart

After transferring from Southern Cal to Ole Miss, Dart completed 62.4% of his passes for 2,974 yards, 20 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his first season in the SEC. He also added 614 rushing yards and one touchdown on the ground. He might have ranked higher on this list except he is not locked in as the starter for 2023.

Spencer Sanders

Dart’s competition for the Ole Miss Starting job comes from Oklahoma State transfer Spencer Sanders. In four years at Oklahoma State, Sanders threw for 9,553 yards, 67 touchdowns and 40 interceptions while rushing for 1,956 yards and 18 more touchdowns. That is not the resume of a quarterback who was likely to transfer into a backup position, but he is coming off a career worst 57.6 completion percentage last season.

Voters: Wilson Alexander (The Advocate), Travis Brown (Bryan-College Station Eagle), David Eckert (Clarion Ledger), Aria Gerson (The Tennessean), Tom Green (, Jon Hale (Lexington Herald-Leader), Bob Holt (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette), Nick Kelly (Tuscaloosa News), Stefan Krajisnik (Clarion Ledger), Ben Portnoy (The State), Adam Sparks (Knoxville News Sentinel), Matt Stahl (Columbia Daily Tribune), Edgar Thompson (Orlando Sentinel), Marc Weiszer (Athens Banner-Herald).