LAFAYETTE — When University of Louisiana at Lafayette football coach Mark Hudspeth looks at wide receiver Al Riles, he doesn’t necessarily see a guy who made huge strides from last year — his first year playing receiver at the college level.
That’s not to say Riles hasn’t improved, Hudspeth said. It’s just that the junior possesses one quality that goes beyond speed and strength.
“He’s consistent,” Hudspeth clarified.
The reliable Riles is there every day, plugging away with the same energy and enthusiasm, even with a couple of nagging bumps and bruises that have kept him from going full speed throughout spring drills.
But while he’s appeared to the coaches to be the same old reliable Al Riles, the junior wideout feels like a different player after spending a year getting comfortable at the position.
“I’m so much more comfortable,” Riles said. “I’m a lot more relaxed. I’m still on my toes, but I’m a lot more comfortable with knowing my playbook and knowing my job. I’m more focused on perfecting it and making plays, doing what I can for my offense.”
His first two years on campus were spent mainly on the defensive side of the ball. In 2013, as a redshirt freshman, Riles dropped down from the secondary to linebacker, where he started five games and finished the season with 39 tackles.
But he also showed coaches some playmaking ability that could be used on offense. Against Western Kentucky, Riles took an interception 99 yards for his first career touchdown.
After reaching out to coaches to let them know he wanted to try out at slot receiver, he picked the brains of former Cajuns receivers Harry Peoples, Darryl Surgent and Javone Lawson to learn the finer points of playing the position.
“I watched a lot of film on Harry Peoples,” Riles said. “My freshman year, his senior year, he was like one of my big brothers. He always knew I wanted to play slot, so when I told him I was going out for it, he was always in my ear.”
It took Riles until midway through the year to truly feel comfortable as a receiver, but once he found his stride, his role immediately expanded.
Against Georgia State last season, Riles caught a career-high eight passes for 80 yards, many of which came on jet sweeps. The next week, he topped that with 81 yards against Texas State.
Though a returning Jamal Robinson figures to be the focal point of the passing game, Riles could figure into the passing game even more this season. Sophomore Gabe Fuselier moved from the slot to the outside after Jared Johnson’s season-ending injury, clearing the way for Riles to handle the majority of the snaps out of the slot.
The injuries to Johnson and receiver Lance Pace also opened another door for Riles, who is stepping into a larger leadership role with the young receivers, who must step up to take their places.
Riles, who was a student this time last year, has become the mentor.
“Every time I see the coaches get on them, I just try to get in his ear right after that and pick them back up, try to tell them to keep a fast memory, because I know the coaches have high hopes for them,” Riles said.
Hudspeth had one more short descriptor for Riles, the defensive back-turned-linebacker-turned-wide receiver. The student-turned-mentor.
“He’s what I call a football player,” Hudspeth said.