By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
It’s easy to believe Duke Riley when he says the thought of transferring never crossed his mind during three long years of waiting to get a shot at cracking the starting lineup.
Even in an age of college football when players bolt if they don’t see the field on their own pre-ordained timetable. A time when many find the junior-college route or sitting out one year elsewhere more appealing than the feeling that their four years of eligibility are being wasted on the sidelines.
Still, it’s not hard to take Riley’s word for it. Maybe it’s the fact he says it while gesturing to the words “Bayou Bengal” tattooed on his forearm.
“Never that,” Riley said of transferring. “I always wanted to be LSU. I mean, I’ve got Bayou Bengal tattooed on me. I’m not sure any of you are tattoo guys, but that’s one of my favorite tattoos. And I’ve got the Eye of the Tiger because I really live this and bleed purple and gold.”
That patience is paying off.
Riley spent his first three seasons at LSU playing primarily on special teams as a reserve linebacker. Now, as a senior, he’s the Tigers’ second-leading tackler and thriving as one half of the insider linebacker tandem alongside Kendell Beckwith in Dave Aranda’s defense.
It’s a role he spent the summer studying and bulking up for. The result has been a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine. His 73 tackles are second only to Beckwith and his 8.0 tackles-for-loss trail only sack artist Arden Key.
Riley’s latest effort was more of the same. He tied for a team-high five tackles with a drive-killing sack and a pass breakup in LSU’s 38-10 rout of Arkansas. In previous weeks he’s intercepted Chad Kelly and stuffed Jalen Hurts on a fourth-down run.
As a whole, that Tiger defense of Aranda’s has now allowed a grand total of nine touchdowns in 10 games, fewest among FBS teams. No opponent has surpassed 21 points. Seven of nine have failed to score 20.
The Buras native — and his trademark hair, of course — is now showing the world why he was a highly-touted linebacker coming out of powerhouse John Curtis.
“In preseason there was a lot of talk that I’ll be a bust,” Riley said. “Some people said I’d do good. All that talk never mattered. I used some of it for motivation. I guess you could say the tables have turned. I knew what I was capable of. I just never let any of that down talk to get to me.”
He added on Aranda: “He probably doesn’t want any of the credit, but everything I’ve done and I’m doing right now, I’ll give the credit to him. He’s made me so much better of a player and a person than I’d ever thought I would be.”
The long wait had more to do with the players ahead of Riley on the depth chart than his own abilities. He spent three years behind the likes of Lamin Barrow, Kwon Alexander and Deion Jones.
The last one is particularly relevant. Like Riley, Jones excelled in special teams work for three years before bursting on to the scene in his senior season as an undersized linebacker who made up for what he lacked in poundage with speed and a nose for the football.
Jones led the Tigers with 100 total tackles last season en route to be drafted in the second round of the NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons. He became a starter right away and even garnered Rookie of the Month honors for a stretch of play that included a Pick-6 of Drew Brees.
“People asked me ‘Do I want to be like Deion Jones?’” Riley said. “Of course I do. Look at the things he did here. Look at the things he’s doing now. Who wouldn’t want to make plays like he is and be the guy he is on and off the field, handling things the right way?”
Saturday even provided a glimpse into who may be next in line. Junior Donnie Alexander, another New Orleans native, picked off a pass from Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen and returned it 14 yards in the other direction. He’ll be in line to start next season.
Arm Talent Alert
Speaking of Aranda, here’s yet another reminder why it’ll be in LSU’s best interest to ensure he’s on staff in 2017 no matter who ends up head coach — not that anybody needed one.
All of the sudden, the formerly quarterback-starved SEC has received an influx of talented freshman signal callers. The league’s new wave of quarterback was on display for the nation this past weekend.
Alabama’s Jalen Hurts, one week off getting bottled up by LSU, eviscerated Mississippi State. He threw for 397 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for 100 yards and an additional score. That brings the season total to 27 touchdowns for the quarterback of the nation’s No. 1 team.
Georgia’s Jacob Eason, the most celebrated arm of the bunch coming out of high school, helped lead an upset of No. 9 Auburn. He’s thrown 11 touchdowns compared to five touchdown without the benefit of a dynamic supporting cast.
The latest to burst onto the scene is Shea Patterson of Ole Miss. After the injury to Kelly. Hugh Freeze decided to pull his redshirt this week and the rookie promptly led a come-from-behind upset of No. 8 Texas A&M on the road. He looked a bit like Johnny Manziel, throwing for 338 yards and two scores plus 64 rushing yards.
There’s also Jake Bentley at South Carolina, though he struggled on the road against Florida on Saturday. He’s thrown six touchdowns and just one interception in four games as the starter.
Aranda has already proved himself a guru of slowing now high-powered spread offenses, and LSU is going to need all the help it can get keeping them bottled up for at least the next two years.
LSU believes it has its own quarterback of the future coming down the pipeline in Mississippi native Myles Brennan, but it remains to be seen how that’ll play out. For now, the best defense is one with Aranda calling the shots.
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