Squinting into the late afternoon sun, a scout from the Jacksonville Jaguars watched a Minnesota practice two weeks ago. His presence was not lost on Karon Riley, a senior defensive end and the reigning Big Ten sack champion. On the second play of a nine-on-seven drill, Riley leaped over a tight end who was trying to cut-block him, fought off another blocker, got into the backfield and delivered a hit to backup running back Renato Fitzpatrick that was so devastating, it bent Fitzpatrick's face mask and knocked out his two front teeth.
The scout, seeing Riley standing over the bloodied Fitzpatrick, smiled. "I wanted to give the scout something to remember me by," Riley said later. "I feel bad about that hit, because Renato is one of my best friends. But when I'm on the field, I do what I have to do to take care of business."
In a 34-9 victory over Baylor on Sept. 16, Riley knocked out Bears quarterback Greg Cicero in the first quarter, breaking his left collarbone in two places, then hit backup Michael Odum so hard he had to leave the game with a concussion in the fourth quarter. Through four games Riley, who made 59 tackles, including 16 sacks and 22 tackles for losses last season, had three sacks among his 21 tackles.
At 6'4", 248 pounds, Riley runs a 4.55 40, has a 36-inch vertical jump and bench-presses 415 pounds. His blend of speed and strength enables him to use four pass-rush moves. "He's got a speed rush, a shake-and-bake rush, a speed-bull rush and an undercut rush," says Gophers defensive ends coach Mark Snyder. "Basically all that means is he's like a very, very good Florida State defensive end. He can do it all."
Riley didn't flourish at Martin Luther King High in Detroit until his senior year, when he had 12 sacks and six fumble recoveries, and then averaged 17 points a game in leading the Crusaders to the city basketball playoffs for the first time in 15 years. Still, many schools believed Riley to be a one-year wonder, and only a few offered him a scholarship. "Northwestern wanted me as a tight end, but I like defense," says Riley. "SMU gave me a chance."
Riley played sparingly in his first two years in Dallas, and after his sophomore season he wanted out. Karon's father, Fred, got in contact with Reggie Mitchell, who was then a Minnesota assistant, and sent Mitchell a videotape of his son. "I remember saying, 'Who's Karon Riley?' " recalls Gophers coach Glen Mason. "Then my coaches told me that he played for SMU. We had a couple of scholarships left, and I figured, Let's take him."
On the first day Riley was on campus, in 1998, his second cousin, Ron Johnson, a heralded wideout, arrived in Minneapolis on a recruiting visit. After the two spent the weekend together, Johnson canceled his visit to Penn State. "I lobbied him hard," says Riley of Johnson, who as a sophomore in '99 led the Gophers with 43 receptions for 574 yards. This season Johnson has a team-leading 20 catches. "I told him if he came, they'd remember us for years."
Fitzpatrick, for one, won't be forgetting Riley anytime soon.