As a ballyhooed freshman at St. Francis High, Dietrich Riley came to the Golden Knights with his share of hype and made his share of noise late in his first varsity campaign.
The Pasadena native entered UCLA in much the same way and, as his freshman season as a Bruin progressed, so too did Riley's playing time and contributions.
"Last half [of the season], he put on a show," says UCLA redshirt junior Aaron Hester, a cornerback out of Dominguez High. "You could tell he had the physical attributes to shine."
Whether on defense or offense, Riley truly began to take off during his sophomore campaign at St. Francis, when, upon the conclusion of the season, he was voted the All-Area Football Player of the Year for the first of on an unprecedented three times.
And as Riley's sophomore college campaign and the 2011 Bruins' season looms ahead, there are many that believe the talented strong safety will once again shine as a sophomore.
"He's got Troy Polamalu-type skill in terms of making plays," says UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel, paying Riley a large compliment in comparing him to the Pittsburgh Steelers' four-time All-Pro safety. "I think it's just a matter of time before he starts to show that."
Neuheisel and the Bruins enter the upcoming season — one that begins at Houston on Sept. 3 — on the heels of a disappointing 4-8 campaign last year and in dire need of steering the program in the right direction. With Riley entering fall camp as the starting strong safety on the depth chart, many believe he will play a vital role in a turnaround if it is to be had.
"Back there, a lot of times you're looking for guys who can make a difference, can change a game," UCLA secondary coach Tim Hundley says. "And Dietrich's a difference-maker."
In the fall of 2006, a 14-year-old freshman Riley made his varsity football debut for St. Francis against Alemany and promptly caught three passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns. In just three games at the varsity level, he would become an All-Mission League player.
"It's so rare for a freshman to do that," St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds says. "Right there, we knew he was something special."
Something special came in the form of numerous Mission League, All-Area, All-CIF and All-American accolades. Playing everywhere from safety and linebacker to running back and receiver, he totaled more than 150 tackles, 30 total touchdowns, 2,700 yards rushing and nearly 1,000 yards receiving in his career. Along with the honors and statistics came plenty of recruiting suitors, with Riley eventually settling on UCLA to play under Neuheisel.
"Dietrich, to me, is the consummate football player," Neuheisel says. "He loves the game, he loves everything about it."
As a freshman at UCLA, Riley played in every game but the Bruins' first of the season. He tallied 21 tackles, mostly on special teams, but gained reps in the secondary as his rookie campaign carried on. His biggest highlight likely came on Nov. 6, 2010, at the Rose Bowl against Oregon State. Riley followed a sweep brilliantly and laid a bone-jarring tackle on Beavers running back Jacquizz Rodgers that sent Rodgers' helmet flying and became an instant highlight-reel hit.
"It's an unbelievable accomplishment to step in and play as a freshman at a Division I program," says Bonds, who played quarterback at UCLA during his college days.
Still, for some outsiders, Riley's freshman season out of the starting lineup was reason enough to doubt whether or not he had made the right decision to be a rostered player.
"It's tough to come in and start as a freshman when you have an All-American back there like Rahim Moore and another great returning starter like Tony Dye," Riley says. "I definitely got a lot of experience. A lot of people ask me do I wish I would've redshirted [last season]. I think by playing, I got so much experience."
Unbeknownst to many, as well, was that Riley was nursing injuries during his freshman year that included hip and hamstring issues along with a gluteus injury.
"We just gotta get him 100% healthy," Neuheisel says. "I think it's going to be magic when he starts going."
For the most part, though, Riley says he's healthy and ready to go. That was hardly the case last season, though he soldiered through it.
"I just played through it," Riley says. "I would just go through the pain; I was definitely only like 75%.
"I'm ready to go now, no excuses."
Unfortunately for Riley and the rest of the Bruins, the aforementioned Oregon State game saw UCLA's last victory of the season, as they lost their final three games.
In February, new defensive coordinator Jim Tresey was hired on, bringing a more aggressive attack to UCLA's base 4-3 defense. Thus, with Riley now proclaiming himself healthy, learning and becoming comfortable with the defense seem to be a final hurdle.
"When he's gonna be at his best is when he's got that all down," Neuheisel says. "Once he knows it, he'll start using his anticipatory skills.
"When the conscious gets the subconscious, you can just let it fly. We're close to that."
Working to educate himself and putting in the extra time to improve his game is nothing that Riley shies away from.
"He's a worker," Neuheisel says. "This is a kid who busted his tail."
Riley earned a reputation with his work ethic long before his days as a Bruin began. However, he says he realized his effort and determination had to increase as the competition did.
"Everyone at the college level is gifted," Riley says. "You just can't be satisfied, you have to be willing to work. At this level, it's all about putting in the extra time."
And that work began to pay off this past spring — his first with UCLA.
"He did a nice job in the spring," Hundley says. "I think he caught everybody's eye.
"What he did last fall is just a percentage of what he can be."
With Moore having left for the NFL and the Denver Broncos, Dye was moved into the free safety spot and Riley was slotted at strong safety. He'll be called on to be the eighth man in the box on running downs and to bring a physical presence to the secondary. It's something most believe Riley is more than capable of doing.
"I think that's a great spot for him," Bonds says. "He, from our experience, plays very well when he can come forward and is attacking the football."
During his time at St. Francis, Riley played all over the secondary and throughout the linebacking corps, but his abilities playing safety stood out.
"Strong safety's definitely a position that suits me," Riley says. "It goes back to my time at St. Francis. [Defensive coordinator] Coach [Mark] Gibbons, he always liked to bring me closer to the line, he liked to move me around, he blitzed me a lot."
Heading into fall camp, which begins Monday, Riley is the starting strong safety on the depth chart. It's a spot he earned with his play last season and his performance this spring. It's a job that certainly isn't his just yet, but he insists he's not backing down from any competition.
"Right now, going into fall camp as the starter is where I want to be," Riley says. "I'm not backing down from competition one bit. It'll bring out the best in me."
And Riley at his best is what the Bruins' staff is counting on.
"Dietrich's success is gonna be predicated on the fact that he doesn't want to lose, he doesn't want to be second place," Hundley says. "Based on who Dietrich is, the kind of drive he has, that's what's gonna get Dietrich to be the kind of player he can be."
As summer's conclusion draws near and the 2011 kickoff quickly approaches, time seems to be of the essence and for the taking.
With last season's subpar results, it's clear that many believe the Bruins will struggle and, if that is to happen again, changes might be in order.
"We're just looking forward to going out to Houston and getting that first win," Riley says. "A lot of people are doubting us, but we can't look back. We want to move forward.
"I just feel we have a whole different attitude."
For Riley, much like the Bruins as a whole, it would appear this is his time and season to seize.
"Now, [for] Dietrich, it's his time to shine," Hester says. "Once he gets out there, makes some plays, that's when I think you'll see his game skyrocket.
"He has 'it,' that it factor that a football player needs, that a player in the secondary needs. You need 'it' to be successful and he has it."
Four autumns removed from a sophomore season at St. Francis in which Riley truly began to establish himself as a high school star, he enters his sophomore season at UCLA. He enters it as a 6-foot-1, 205-pound strong safety looking to make big hits and an even bigger impact. He enters it hoping to stay healthy, remain a starter, prove all the doubters wrong and all his supporters right.
"With all that he's put in, he's due for a breakout season," Bonds says. "I'm just excited for him. I'm excited to go watch him at the Rose Bowl on Saturdays."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times