ATHENS – It had been well more than two months since the catch, it was just that Riley Ridley hadn’t had a chance to talk about it. The subject was broached carefully, considering everything, but Ridley’s eyes opened and he smiled.
“No problem, I can take you exactly through it,” Ridley said.
It remains one of the great what-ifs of Georgia’s season. The incredible game-winning touchdown catch that didn’t turn out that way. Five games into Ridley’s career, his name already would have been etched in one of the more epic victories in Georgia football history.
Briefly imagine for a moment that what happened after the play didn’t happen, and let Ridley describe the moments before his 47-yard touchdown catch with 10 seconds left against Tennessee.
“I looked at the clock and saw the clock was winding down, and we needed a touchdown. My coach called my number, he told me to go out,” Ridley said. “While I was running out on the field, I thought to myself, What can I prep myself, or hype myself up to go to do what I have to do. And that was just the two-minute drills that we learned in practice. And I just carried it to the field, and it really worked out for me.”
Ridley ran a fly pattern down the left sideline, Jacob Eason heaved the ball, and as the Tennessee defender eased up just a split-second too long, Ridley hauled in the pass perfectly. Sanford Stadium went crazy, and Georgia seemed to have a stirring victory, a 4-1 record, great position in the SEC East race …
Well, Ridley didn’t have that Hobnail Boot-type moment. But he still had a pretty good freshman season, all in all. The stats aren’t quite eye-popping: Twelve catches for 238 yards and two touchdowns, with the Liberty Bowl still to go. But his receiving yards rank third among Georgia wide receivers, behind only veterans Isaiah McKenzie and Terry Godwin.
“I feel like I did a pretty good job,” Ridley said. “I don’t want to say that I did a great job or a poor job. I feel like I maintained myself, and I can get better, and I will get better. I just felt good about it.”
This time last year, Ridley wasn’t even on Georgia’s radar screen. And not just because he wasn’t on the team. And within a few weeks he was a Bulldog.
When the coaching change happened, Ridley was still widely known as Cavin – no L – the younger brother of Alabama’s then-freshman star receiver Calvin Ridley. New Georgia head coach Kirby Smart hired a new receivers coach, James Coley, who had been the offensive coordinator at Miami and thus knew about the younger Ridley.
Very fast, much faster than usually happens in recruiting, Coley helped get Ridley on Georgia’s radar screen, and he not only committed but enrolled early. He also asked to be called Riley, partially to be out of his younger brother’s shadow.
But he continued to seek out his older brother’s advice, especially as Georgia went through a rough season, and Ridley’s playing time was sporadic. Maybe his older brother, a star for a championship team, couldn’t completely empathize, but he tried.
“He told me to just to keep grinding. Keep pushing,” Ridley said. “It may not look as bright as you want it right now, but I promise you it’s going to get better if you keep grinding.”
When Ridley arrived at Georgia last January, he admitted it was a bit of a “wow” moment, seeing that the rest of the 2016 class was still six months or more from arriving. But he soon realized it gave him a heads up.
“You get a chance to learn the plays, you get a chance to catch footballs with the new starting quarterback,” Ridley said. “Not all the other guys are coming in to do this. So I really took advantage of it.”