Before Eron Riley had an official reception, head coach Ted Roof saw big things coming from his freshman wide receiver.
After starting wideout Jomar Wright's season-ending injury during the Oct. 1 loss to Navy, Roof said he expected Riley to step up to fill the playmaking role vacated by Wright. At that time, Riley's only career reception did not even count toward his personal statistics-it was a catch for a two-point conversion during the Navy game from fellow freshman Zack Asack.
Since then Riley has proven his coach's forecast to be correct as he has broken out as a deep threat and has become one bright spot in an increasingly dismal offensive season for Duke. In Saturday's loss to Wake Forest, Riley led the team in receiving with two catches for 56 yards and corralled his first career touchdown. On the season Riley has five receptions for 104 yards-the 20.8 yards per catch is highest on the team.
"I've been real pleased with him," Roof said. "I have a lot of confidence in Eron, and I think he is going to be a really, really good football player in this league. I'm excited about his development."
The progress was slow at first, though. Riley began the season buried on the depth chart. He did not see action in the season opener at East Carolina and only played briefly the next week at home versus Virginia Tech. Riley found himself in Roof's doghouse the week after when he was suspended for the Virginia Military Institute game for a violation of team rules.
Riley finally got his chance during the Navy game when Asack led a 66-yard drive down the field early in the fourth quarter. Asack's six-yard touchdown scamper brought the Blue Devils within two points, and Roof called for a two-point conversion. On the ensuing play, Asack rolled right and lobbed a pass to Riley into the back-right corner of the end zone. The 6-foot-3 freshman came down with the ball and tied the game up for Duke.
Since then he has built on his momentum and his rapport with Asack. The two connected on a 38-yard bomb late in the second quarter two weeks later against Georgia Tech Oct. 15. The catch was part of a long drive that put Duke ahead going into halftime that game. On the play, Riley out-jumped the Yellow Jacket cornerback to reel in the ball.
"What he does so well is he judges the ball, the deep ball especially, and he competes for it," Roof said. "I think that he and Zack Asack have some good chemistry. That's good because we have them both for three more years after this."
And ever since, Asack has been looking for Riley as a primary option down the field. Riley said he has become more comfortable on the field, and it has allowed him to relax and make big plays.
"The game is starting to slow down a little bit for me," he said. "Now, I can play the way I've always played. Instead of just being out there, I now can try to make plays to help my team the best I can."
Part of the reason for the relatively slow adjustment was because Riley's athletic ability had spread him too thin in high school, Roof said. The wideout played forward for his high school basketball team and ran the 100 meter in track and field. Before now, he never fully focused on football-he is just now learning to be precise in his route-running.
Both Riley and Roof said devoting all of Riley's attention to football will help the wide receiver reach his full potential. He needs to put time in the weight room and continue to develop his hands and speed, Roof said.
"When I was playing other sports, I could never really concentrate on football like I would have liked to," Riley said. "Coming here and only playing one sport is going to allow me to concentrate on football during the offseason and dedicate my time to football and academics. I really think this offseason will help me out a lot."