Georgia Tech’s Christian Leary making defenses leery

Wide receiver becoming a prime offensive weapon for the Yellow Jackets

It had been a long time since Christian Leary had found the end zone, quite surprising for the former high school star who was a contributor as a freshman on Alabama’s 2021 College Football Playoff runner-up team.

But almost two years after first reaching the end zone as a collegian, Leary finally was back on the scoring sheet Saturday when he caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Haynes King in the first quarter against Bowling Green. Leary’s first career TD reception was almost two years ago: Nov. 20, 2021 for Alabama – also from 11 yards out.

“I’ve haven’t been in there in a little minute,” Leary smiled Wednesday when asked about his first touchdown with Georgia Tech. “It felt good to be back in the chicken box, they like to say. It was fun. Hope to get in there a little more this year, help the team.”

Moving forward, Tech (2-3, 1-1 ACC) needs the help from Leary, a lightning-fast receiver still somewhat coming into his own as a primary offensive weapon.

Leary began playing football in the second grade on the suggestion he do so from his father. Until that point, he was into skateboarding or drawing as a kid in Orlando, Florida.

Admittedly, “horrible,” as a safety, Leary played some quarterback before primarily becoming a running back during his youth days. He knew he had the talent to compete at a high level. He knows now he definitely did not have the drive.

Youth coach Curtis Killings is to thank for setting a new standard for Leary.

“I hated him as coach just because how hard he pushed me. I was just athletic and lazy, and he would try to bring everything out of me,” Leary said. “He kept that drive in me, ‘You’re only so good. You got to keep finding ways to get better,’ and that’s what he used to do when he coached me.

“We’d turn the car lights on and be out there running and doing whatever we can after practice. I try to keep that in my head. Just don’t get complacent. I was a goofball growing up, so he used to knock some sense into me.”

As a sophomore at Edgewater High School, Leary began to seriously focus on becoming a wide receiver. He caught 46 passes for 1,036 yards and eight scores as a junior and 32 passes for 551 yards and five scores in 2020.

Programs such as Kent State, Toledo and nearby Central Florida had offered scholarships, but it wasn’t until Leary had his coming-out party in the 2019 Class 7A state championship game against St. Thomas Aquinas that Leary was noted as a big-time recruit.

His 141 rushing yards on eight carries (including a 75-yard rushing touchdown) that day turned heads around the region and the country. Texas, Penn State, Oklahoma, Georgia, Ohio State, Alabama and Miami (Tech’s opponent at 8 p.m. Saturday, ACC Network) all wanted Leary on their side. Ultimately, Leary chose Alabama.

“I really grew a lot just playing receiver, just being developed, just being able to compete against the best, learning new ways to run routes. So that was really fun,” Leary said of his time with the Crimson Tide. “I love the grind. You come out of high school, ‘All right, I’ve always been the best.’ And you get there and it’s like a start over, a reality check. It was just fun to compete. I think that was the best part of Alabama, just being able to compete with guys every day.”

Leary caught two passes as a freshman at Alabama in 2021. He also spent a lot of time at practice in the backfield because of the Crimson Tide’s injury issues at that position that season. In 2022, Leary made only one catch for six yards, in the opener against Utah State.

Feeling a desire to get more opportunities to touch the ball, Leary announced in December his decision to transfer elsewhere. He nearly ended up back in Orlando at UCF until offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey left the Knights for North Carolina.

Tech wide receivers coach Josh Crawford had been in Leary’s ear about joining Crawford at Western Kentucky. Then Crawford took the job to be Tech coach Brent Key’s wide receivers coach.

“I love it. Everybody’s genuine, I feel like,” Leary said of being a Yellow Jacket. “Nobody really cares about their individual goals. We’re all trying to come together as one, which is something I take big. That was kind of the program I came from in high school, just the individual goals will come under the big goals. We all just try to stick together.”

Not only did Leary finally find the end zone as a receiver against Bowling Green, he had six kickoff returns for 142 yards. That brought his season total of all-purpose yards to 379.

Leary is one of seven wide receivers to catch a pass this season. Key said Thursday that Leary, a former high school track star, could be featured more moving forward in all facets of Tech’s offense and special teams.

“Since coming here, his focus on the details on the things he had to improve on has really improved,” Key said. “He’s not just an athlete out there running. He’s really worked hard on his ball skills, not just the easy catches, but the tough catches, and then what he does afterward. His route running has become a lot more improved.

“His versatility of not just playing the slot but playing on the outside. You see him in the backfield several times. There’s a lot of things you can do with Christian. I’ve been pleased with his growth really since the beginning of spring then to the beginning of preseason. It’s like anything, a lot of guys, once you get to games, you start to feel game speed a lot. Now you’ve improved more and more. I think Christian’s only going to continue to do that.”

Leary’s return to his home state will be his first as an active college player (he didn’t play in Alabama’s trip to Florida in 2021). He expects about a dozen friends and family to show up to support him at Hard Rock Stadium, including his mother, Semona Stafford, and 10-year-old brother, Karter.

Karter, who has Down Syndrome, isn’t able to make many games in Atlanta or elsewhere – he doesn’t handle long travel well, Leary said. But Leary will make sure to find his brother before kickoff Saturday to let him know how much his presence means to him.

“When I get to see him we spend the whole time with each other, and he keeps me smiling,” Leary said. “He likes to ride, so whenever I’m going to the store, I gotta go anywhere, he’s right in my hip just ready to get in the car.

“When I’m home, I take him to work out with me. I’ll go get food. I’ll take him to the movies – if he’ll sit through it. Whatever I can do to keep him busy, help give my mom a couple extra hours to herself.”

On Aug. 4, 2019, Killings was fatally stabbed in Daytona Beach, Fla. He was 29.

Killings’ death greatly affected Leary, who was about to start his junior year of high school. In the football games that followed, Leary would write “LLC,” for “long live Curt,” on his cleats.

Leary still thinks of the lessons that Killings taught him and said without his guidance he wouldn’t have become the man and player he is today. Killings likely would have been among those in attendance Saturday to see how far Leary has come.

Leary hopes to honor his former coach and friend with the way he continues to improve on and off the field.

“If I could tell him anything, it would just be thank you,” Leary said.

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