Daric Riley has come to East Carolina from Southern Methodist to coach the Pirate safeties as ECU looks for a turnaround from three straight losing seasons. Riley was part of a significant gridiron upgrade by the Mustangs.
While Riley was at SMU as a quality control assistant and special teams analyst, the program progressed from 2-10 in 2015 to 5-7 in 2016 to 7-6 this past season.
The improvement led to Coach Chad Morris being hired away by Arkansas. Riley, who had worked with David Blackwell at Clemson and knew the new ECU defensive coordinator even before that, joined the Pirate staff last month.
He’s been busy to say the least.
“Moving from Dallas,” Riley said. “It’s an 18-hour drive. We’ve got a five-month-old. We’ve got a cat and a house full of stuff. You can imagine. Trying to recruit and my wife finishing up her job.”
There are similarities and differences in the challenges SMU faced and those with which ECU is dealing. The Mustangs went 1-11 in 2014 after June Jones resigned as coach following the second game.
“I would say the talent is better here,” Riley said. “The resources are better here. … When Coach Morris got there, it was really in dire straits. We had to recruit a lot of kids. We had to change the culture. I don’t know if complacent is the right word there. Here, it’s hunger. It’s a different kind of fix.
“I think the hunger here is definitely more palpable. You can feel it and you can understand it. You can see it through the players. I can see it through all the staff members. You can see it through the fans that come around, people in the town. It’s really important to them.
“SMU was different. They didn’t know just how to fix it. … They were learning how to turn it around. Here, we’re hungry to get it back.”
Recruiting helped the Mustangs recover.
“Good players are always going to make you a better coach,” Riley said. “That’s obvious. What Coach Morris did — it wasn’t about wins and losses. It was about an identity of being fast, an identity of being a family. He changed the players’ outlook from being result-oriented to being family-oriented and ‘We’re going to play fast and we’re going to do things the right way.’ That was how he changed it.
“I think what Coach Mo (ECU head coach Scottie Montgomery) is doing is about hunger and fight and the chip. Getting that East Carolina swagger back. Getting our players to feel what that is. It’s a different dynamic. That’s what they want. That’s what they need here. . . .
“At SMU, they needed to worry about winning small battles. . . . Here, we need to worry about getting our identity back.”
That qualifies as a pretty thorough analysis, so maybe it’s no surprise that Riley was a double major at Charleston Southern — in psychology and physical education.
He thought about becoming a sports psychologist but a series of doors opened up at his alma mater that led him into coaching.
Riley went to SMU when Alabama-Birmingham shut down its program despite becoming bowl eligible in 2014. He was special teams coordinator and linebackers coach for the Blazers.
“Heart-wrenching,” Riley said of the circumstances.
UAB has since reinstated its football program.
From 2007 to 2010, Riley was a graduate assistant at Clemson. Riley said Tigers coach Dabo Swinney is the same guy in the office that fans see on television.
“What you see is what you get with Coach Swinney,” said Riley, a native of Beaufort, SC, who is looking forward to recruiting in the Palmetto State and catching up with former teammates and coaches.
“The relationships you build are really the highlight for me,” Riley said.
The ECU safeties coach got his master’s degree in youth development leadership from Clemson in 2009.
Spring football practice at ECU is scheduled to start Monday.
“I want to get the players to buy in to the system, the new system, Coach Blackwell,” Riley said. “That’s an important thing. … A friend of mine gave me this quote — ‘People only see from their level of perception.’ That’s an important quote for our players to understand.
“I’m going to present the scheme, the install for that day. If they don’t have any questions and they can verbalize it back to me, then I feel like they know it. I’m perceiving that they know what’s going on. … I need to know where the guys are. … If they don’t communicate to me, then I’m not going to know what they’re thinking.”
There will be a lot of building before spring practice closes on March 24.
“Get a great buy-in, get a relationship and then see who can play,” Riley said of objectives. “Those that struggle — find out why they’re struggling, so they can play free and have fun. These players need to have fun. I want to have fun. … That’s important.”
One of the items that stands out on Riley’s resume is the 30 interceptions that Fairfield (CT) recorded in 2000, when he was secondary coach for the Stags I-AA program, which was discontinued in 2002. A number approaching that figure would certainly boost the Pirates, who picked off just seven passes last season.
“When you’re really, really successful, you find other ways to become more successful,” Riley said. “Right now, you’re looking at it, going, ‘We’ve just got to start over.’
“Interceptions and turnovers and success on special teams, all that happens, it’s like a snowball. It starts to run downhill. We had one special player at Fairfield, Steve Dogmantis, who was awesome. … ‘Dog’ was a heckuva player. He had 13 picks. He had 13 but there’s still another 17 out there. He elevated the play of everybody else. That’s what that one player did. …
“J.J. Nelson, who was a big-time returner for UAB, who is playing for the (Arizona) Cardinals. He and I still talk. He elevated the play of everybody else.
“In the process of getting to know each other, we’re trying to figure out who’s going to be that guy that elevates the play of everybody else. That guy, typically, is going to create a snowball effect, positively, for everyone. What defends against a negative snowball effect is great relationships.
“If you don’t have that one dynamic player, you’ve got to spread those 13 picks some place else. You’ve got to spread them through maybe D-line sacks. You’ve got to spread them through the scheme. You’ve got to spread them through knowledge. You’ve got to spread them through being better with your eyes. You’ve got to spread them through hitting better angles.
“That’s why the relationships you create with your players and the understandings you create, are so important. You’ve got to build your foundation there. If you have a great relationship and understanding of one another and a great knowledge of the scheme and, on top of that, a great player, then all of a sudden, things get better. …
“Let’s just learn the scheme. Learn where we fit. Let the offense make a mistake and we’ll take advantage of it. That’s how we got those 30 picks.”
No kin to Lincoln Riley
Lincoln Riley emerged as a dynamic coach while offensive coordinator at ECU from 2010 to 2014. Oklahoma made the college football playoffs in Riley’s first season as head coach in 2017.
ECU’s new safeties coach is not related to the young boss of the Sooners.
“I’m not related,” Daric Riley said. “Not anything that I know of. … We’ll see if I can coach like him.”