Redshirt freshman Draper Riley played wide receiver in high school, but nowadays it looks like he ate a wide receiver and maybe a kicker on his way to the buffet line. The 6-foot-4, 284-pound freshman came to Southern Miss as a highly touted tight end, but now Riley has grown (both vertically and horizontally) to become the biggest defensive lineman on the roster.
The transition from tight end to D-line has been difficult at times for Riley, who has been forced to learn the intricacies of a position he's never played at the Division I level. That's tough on anybody. But if defensive line coach Derrick Leblanc has anything to say about it, the redshirt freshman will be a handful off the line once he figures everything out.
"Right now he's 280 lbs. In high school he was 240 lbs. He's kind of outgrown that tight end spot," Leblanc said. "He's very athletic. He doesn't know how to play D line yet, but when he does, we think he's gonna be special for us."
Riley is just now getting used to the physical nature of the position and the detailed processing of defensive schemes that comes with it. But he's been thrown in the fire and must now enter the stage as an important piece to the puzzle in 2014.
"He's just a big kid and he's growing. I'm not gonna compare him to Warren Sapp just yet, but (he's) an athletic guy that grew into a tackle," Leblanc said. "He's a big body who's athletic. He's gonna be a perfect three technique."
Riley said he's enjoyed the switch to the defensive side of the ball, especially since he's faster and more athletic than most of his teammates at that position.
"The transition, it's been real good. I find defensive tackle to be hard and easy sometimes, me being quicker than some of the tackles," he said. "When it's time to double team, it's time to man up. Other than that, everything's been real good."
And while he admits it hasn't been as easy as he sometimes lets on, the monstrosity of a man does enjoy one benefit of having played with the offense his whole life.
"All the running. The running and all that has been real good," he said. "I don't have to push myself as hard as a lot of other people because I'm used to doing it all the time."
Other than that it's been a work in progress for a guy who joins a unit decimated by injuries and inexperience. All of the extra reps he's been getting in practice have done wonders for him as Riley prepares to be a key cog to the defense this season.
"The thing is, like right now, a lot of our guys are injured, so he's getting all these reps," Leblanc said. "He's getting better every day. I'm excited about him."
It hasn't come easy, and there is still a ton of work left to do, both on the field and in life. But Todd Monken is excited about his new defensive toy.
"Everything about Draper is a work in progress. His daily life is a work in progress. His ability to get things done in the classroom is a work in progress; his on the field is a work in progress," Monken said.
"The good news is, Draper is a great kid and he wants to be a good football player and he wants to be successful in life. It's just baby steps in terms of improving that. I've been very impressed. I'm hopeful that he'll continue to keep pushing forward in all aspects of life."
When asked if there was anything that has come easy to Riley during the switch, Leblanc answered with a laugh and resounding "no." But once he does finally get it, he'll get it for good, and that will be a great thing for Southern Miss football.
"He's going through the freshman deal. Learning how to be a college student, being on time for class, hurrying up to meetings, weightlifting, everything -- it's all on top of him," Leblanc said. "He's just got to learn how to get through it and learn how to take care of all that stuff. He's gonna be a great one for us."