High School Sports

Ex-Butler star Riley Ferguson battles to restart his career

Riley Ferguson, seen here when he was at Butler High School, left Tennessee after one season and sat out last fall. He plans to play junior college next fall and enroll at a Division I school in January 2016.
Riley Ferguson, seen here when he was at Butler High School, left Tennessee after one season and sat out last fall. He plans to play junior college next fall and enroll at a Division I school in January 2016. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Sometimes, Riley Ferguson will sit back and think about what might have been.

Instead of spending last fall playing college football at Tennessee in front of 100,000 fans , Ferguson – a former All-America high school quarterback at Butler – found himself detailing cars at a dealership near Concord Mills Mall and later painting for a custom fence company.

Once seen as a can’t-miss high school prospect, Ferguson was a long way from football.

“Sometimes,” he said, “I look back and wished I would’ve stayed (at Tennessee) because I would’ve played this year and maybe last year, too. I liked the school, but I was kind of immature about a lot of things when I was there. I hadn’t grown up yet.”

Now, Ferguson is trying to restart his career.

In March, he enrolled at Coffeyville (Kan.), a national junior college power . Former two-time Observer Player of the Year Brian Knuckles of West Charlotte High played at Coffeyville before enrolling at Nebraska in the early ’90s.

Ferguson, 20, said it was “culture shock” to move to a town of about 10,000 in southeast Kansas. But Coffeyville has produced more than 50 NFL players, and Ferguson still dreams of playing professionally.

“I’m looking at this as a second opportunity for me,” he said. “I’m trying to look at the positives and take advantage of everything.”

Not the ‘right fit’

In high school, Ferguson led the Bulldogs to two state titles, as a sophomore in 2010, and again as a senior in 2012. The summer before his senior year, he appeared on national television in a camp for top U.S. high school quarterbacks called the Elite 11. After he committed and later signed with Tennessee, Volunteers message boards and bloggers anointed him a future star.

Ferguson suffered a leg injury and redshirted his freshman year at Tennessee in the fall of 2013. In the Volunteers’ spring game in early 2014, Ferguson returned. He went 7-of-12 for 83 yards and a touchdown but also threw an interception and lost a fumble. Through it all, though, Ferguson said he just never felt comfortable in Knoxville.

“It wasn’t the right fit for me,” he said. “Or at least I felt that way then. I had committed to coach (Derek) Dooley and he got fired and coach (Butch) Jones (and staff) came in. I didn’t know them like that. We had good relationships, but I used to wake up every day miserable and I got tired of feeling like that.”

In May 2014, after he finished his freshman year academically, Ferguson decided on the drive home that he wasn’t going back to Tennessee. He figured it would be easy for a former recruit of his stature to find another school.

Only it didn’t quite work out that way.

Another chance

When Ferguson returned home, he said he tried to reach out to the Charlotte 49ers. He said that was the only place he wanted to go. The 49ers, he said, didn’t appear interested.

Charlotte 49ers coach Brad Lambert declined to comment, citing NCAA rules.

So Ferguson started working and watching on television the guys he grew up playing with and against.

He missed football and realized he was missing an opportunity. Early this year, he told his high school coach, Brian Hales, that he wanted to get back into college football. He asked if Hales could help.

Hales called a major-college assistant he knew. The assistant recommended the junior college route, and soon Hales was on the phone with Coffeyville coaches, and a Coffeyville coach had an in-home visit with Ferguson.

Ferguson enrolled, and was in Coffeyville’s spring game. He looked, at least to Coffeyville coach Aaron Flores, like he hadn’t lost a step.

Flores said he expects Ferguson to be his starter when the season begins Aug. 29.

“We’re excited about having him in our program,” Flores said. “We feel really, really good about him. His progress and understanding of the offense is really good and his leadership qualities and everything he’s done this spring has been very exciting. He wasn’t rusty at all. You wouldn’t have known he sat out.”

Flores said Arkansas State has already offered Ferguson, who plans to graduate from Coffeyville in December and enroll in a new school in January 2016. Flores said Arkansas, Texas and Florida are interested.

“Everybody is going to wait and see what he does this season,” Flores said.

Hales doesn’t think Ferguson’s performance will be much of a problem.

“I saw a highlight clip of one of their spring practices and the kid looks stronger than before,” Hales said, “and he just looks phenomenal. Being home and realizing how good he had it was really a big wake-up call. He just seems different now. He did a good job academically in Knoxville so he had an easy transition for Coffeyville.

“I just think he realized he was blessed with an unbelievable amount of talent and wanted to use it. I think this is all great for him. Wherever he goes, they’re going to get a much better version of him versus him staying at Tennessee. Riley now versus Riley then is just night and day.”

Ferguson says he has learned from what he has been through.

“I see myself going somewhere and being really successful,” he said. “That’s my dream, and then going on to make the NFL. I think it’s possible. I’ve matured and grown up and I’m trying to take everything in and learn from everything and everyone around me, move forward in my life and try to do good for everybody.”

Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr