Desirrio Riles was five years old the first time David Penland III saw him play football.
“He was always the bigger guy on the field,” Penland said. “I just knew later in his career that he was going to be a really good football player.”
That early assessment has come true as Riles played in his first varsity game as an eighth grader at University Christian, where he’d go on to be a four-year varsity starter for Penland and develop into a highly touted college recruit. East Carolina became the lucky school to acquire Riles’ talents on March 13, landing the 6-foot-3, 225-pounder as part of the 2023 recruiting class after he first signed with Big Ten Conference member Indiana.
Riles played quarterback, running back, receiver, tight end, defensive end and linebacker during his prep career at University Christian. His versatility originally earned him scholarship offers from Boston College, Bowling Green, Coastal Carolina, Eastern Kentucky, Florida International, Florida A&M, Georgia State, Indiana, Marshall, Memphis, Michigan, Troy and UT-Martin. Indiana was Riles’ initial choice, and he signed a national letter of intent with the Hoosiers on Feb. 1 as an outside linebacker-rush end.
But Riles later decided he wanted to play tight end at the college level. He asked for and was granted his release from the binding letter of intent. East Carolina was the school that offered that opportunity.
“He asked me if I thought he could make it to the league (NFL) playing tight end,” Penland said. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ The more he thought about it, the more he wanted to do it. ECU gave him that opportunity.
“I do think ECU’s coaches really made an impact on him, too. They recruited him from the beginning of August. He has a good relationship with them. He wanted to play tight end and liked their coaches. That’s what it really boiled down to.”
Although recruited as a tight end by the Pirates, Riles only saw limited action there at University Christian. He was a star quarterback in junior high and was good enough to receive a promotion to the University Christian varsity during the playoffs in 2018. University Christian is regarded as a powerhouse among Florida’s smaller schools and produced state 2-A championships in 2012, 2015 and 2017 under Penland.
Penland actually inserted the eighth-grade Riles into the offensive lineup late in a first-round state playoff game against Rocky Bayou Christian. Riles responded by completing his only pass for 10 yards and rushing once for four yards in a 56-6 rout.
The varsity debut was a sign of things to come for Riles. When University Christian’s starting quarterback from 2018, Ridge Jacobs, opted to transfer to another school, Penland immediately turned to Riles.
“We were coming up on spring ball and I knew he was an athlete,” Penland said. “I said, ‘Desirrio, I’m going to need you to play quarterback. And he led us all the way to the state championship game.”
Riles completed 70 of 116 passes for 1,063 yards and rushed for 276 yards and eight more scores in 2019 as the Christians went 11-2 and earned a berth in the state 2-A finals. He had one of his best passing performances of the year in the championship game — 15 of 24 for 168 yards and a touchdown — but University Christian fell, 20-7.
Quarterback continued to be Riles’ main position through his sophomore season. But a growth spurt that saw him go from 180 pounds as a sophomore to 215 as a junior led Penland to suggest a position change.
“He still played quarterback as a junior, but he had gotten so big,” Penland said. “I kind of saw it would be tough for him to go to college playing quarterback. I was kind of talking with some colleges and I’m like, ‘Desirrio, I think you’ve got a better shot at either defensive end or tight end at the next level. I think you could really take off.”
And he did. In addition to completing 56 of 95 passes for 635 yards passing and 605 rushing on offense as a junior, Riles also made 32 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack playing defensive end. He followed that up with 68 tackles, 24 tackles for loss and 14 sacks as a senior to earn first-team All-Coast honors from the Florida-Times Union.
Riles also made his debut at tight end as a senior. Appearing there mainly during University Christian’s march to the regional finals, Riles caught 17 passes for 280 yards and four touchdowns.
“Toward the end of the season we started using him more (at tight end),” Penland said. “He can block, he can run, he can catch. He caught maybe three or four touchdowns in the playoffs just because he’s a mismatch. There aren’t many safeties that can cover a guy who is 6-3, 240 pounds who can run like him. He was a dynamic weapon for us.”
Also a gifted basketball player who averaged 11.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists as a senior, Riles had his initial contact with ECU in June 2022 when the Pirates extended a scholarship offer. ECU was one of his finalists along with South Florida and Indiana before he signed with the Hoosiers. But his change of heart could provide the Pirates with a potential contributor at tight end next fall.
“I think he’s athletic enough and big enough to hold his own,” Penland said. “He’s a hard worker. He doesn’t shy away from work. So I think he could be a guy who’ll get a chance to showcase his skills early.”