Ragin' Cajuns were moved by Al Riles' selfless play on a cold, rainy day in Monroe

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

It was 2016, Al Riles’ senior year.

The Ragin’ Cajuns traveled to Monroe for their regular-season finale with much at stake. Michael Desormeaux, UL’s receivers coach then, may never forget the day.

“It was freezing and pouring,” Desormeaux recently recalled. “And we had to win. We had to win to get to a bowl game.

“On the sideline, I looked at (Riles). I was like, ‘Look, boys, we’re not gonna get a whole lot of catches today; let’s think about getting it done. And he was like, ‘Coach, we already know. It doesn’t matter.’”

Riles – who died Nov. 6 in Fort Worth, Texas, from a gunshot wound to the chest – didn’t care that it would be a day with little glory for skill players.

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It’s the way he was.

A first team All-Sun Belt Conference pick, the slot receiver who briefly spent time with the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent had a team-high 60 catches for 729 yards his senior season.

But his career is remembered now as much for his willingness to do whatever it took as for the number of receptions he made – inspiration, perhaps, for young Cajun receivers preparing for No. 24 UL’s late-season visit to ULM on Saturday (2 p.m., ESPN3).

'He ... played with effort and toughness'

Current Cajuns coach Billy Napier, who replaced Mark Hudspeth late in 2017, had no personal relationship with Riles.

“But I do know he was a well-respected young man who went about his business the right way,” Napier said of Riles’ five-season run with the Cajuns. “He was a guy that played with effort and toughness.”

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Jorge Munoz, an offensive analyst on LSU’s 2019 national-championship team, was UL’s offensive coordinator in 2016. He also was Riles’ position coach for three seasons from 2014-15.

Munoz remembers UL’s offense being built around running backs Elijah McGuire and Alonzo Harris, both of whom later played in the NFL, in 2013 and ’14, and largely around McGuire in 2015.

“We were running the ball pretty good, so we were more of a physical type of unit, so we took pride in stalk blocking, and he (Riles) was our lead dog,” Munoz said.

Riles played receiver with the mentality of a linebacker, perhaps because that’s the position he played as a redshirt freshman in 2013.

“He was just pancaking guys right and left,” Munoz said. “Once the other guys saw him do that, then they started to do that stuff too.”

Late UL receiver Al Riles' races down the field with his 71-yard touchdown catch in a 2016 game against South Alabama.

Guys like Jamal Robinson, a former standout Cajuns receiver who was close with Riles – a Lakeshore High product from Covington – long before both made it to UL.

“It became just an infectious type mindset throughout the receiving corps – ‘We all want to block like (Riles) and get those pancakes and knock guys over and be physical and tough,’” said Munoz, now Baylor’s receivers coach.

“He bought into what we were trying to do there … then all of a sudden Jamal Robinson started doing it, all the guys started playing that way.”

They mimicked the mindset with which Riles played, the one current Cajun coaches are trying to get freshmen receivers Kyren Lacy, Dontae Fleming and Errol Rogers Jr. to play with too.

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“That’s hard to do for receivers, now, you know?” Munoz said. “Right now, my guys – they don’t do that here.

“I’m trying to get them there – but it’s hard to do. But if someone is in your room, and has that mindset, and talks that way, and demands it, it’s easier for those players to respond to one of their own than it is to the coaching.

“When one of their own guys is saying, ‘Guys, we’re gonna kick their butts; let’s go do it,’ man, they respond so much faster that way,” Munoz added. “That’s what he did for us.”

Desormeaux can attest.

“Al was as tough as they come, now,” he said.

“The thing about him that was so awesome … was that, yeah, his senior year he had a really good year. He was the guy we got the ball to and tried to get him touches. But it really didn’t matter.

“I remember we played Georgia and Georgia Southern (in back-to-back November games in 2016,” Desormeaux added, “and those weeks we put in some blocking schemes for those receivers, and it was like, ‘We’re gonna be cracking down on Mike linebackers,’ and, ‘Now it’s going to be time to put on your big-boy pants and go,’ and he was like, ‘Coach, we’re all about that.’”

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'He wasn't scared to go to work'

Current Cajuns quarterback Levi Lewis never played a down with Riles. But he, too, knows what the compact 5-foot-11 slot man was about.

“I watched him coming here on my official visit my 12th grade year, (saw) what type of player he was,” Lewis said. “Aggressive. A ‘hard’ player.

“Like Coach (would) say, ‘He’s a foxhole guy,’ a guy that wants to play for his team. We all … heard the stories about Al.”

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Tales like the one about that chilly 2016 day in Monroe, where the driving rain – cut by a wicked early December wind – at times blew sideways in sheets.

It fell so heavy seeing the field from the press box was nearly impossible. Statisticians seemingly guessed at times who had carried the ball and where it was spotted. Fans in the stands – the few of them that were – got drenched, as did everyone else.

“And he went out there and played his tail off,” Desormeaux said. “All of them really did, but he was a team player; I’ll absolutely say that.”

UL beat ULM 30-3, earning an invitation to play Southern Miss in the New Orleans Bowl.

Quarterback Anthony Jennings threw only five passes that day, completing two. One went to Riles. He didn’t get anywhere. Jennings was intercepted twice and finished with exactly zero passing yards.

But there was Riles, happy to get down and dirty.

“He had a really good senior year, and I was happy for him, because it was kind of his time,” said Desormeaux, now UL’s tight ends coach. “But he wasn’t scared to go to work and do whatever it took to get it done.

“That group of seniors, they were determined, and Al was a huge part of it, making sure we did what it took to win.”

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