Together at Last

Perry Riley and John Chavis could have ended up together in Knoxville had it not been for a last minute decision to sign with LSU. Now, the two are reunited and looking ahead to a big season.

When John Chavis accepted LSU’s vacant defensive coordinator position in January, there were some who were already familiar with The Chief’s defensive prowess.


The Tigers faced Chavis’ Tennessee defense in the 2007 SEC Championship Game, and it was that 21-14 victory that vaulted LSU into the BCS National Championship matchup with Ohio State.


In the week of preparation leading up to the battle for the SEC crown, several current Tigers had to emulate the Tennessee defense in practice. Tiger linebacker Perry Riley – then a true sophomore – was one of the guys who got some work as a Volunteer defender, but even that wasn’t the first time that Riley got a good overview of Chavis’ philosophy. 


Before Riley committed to LSU on Oct. 16, 2005, along with his Stephenson High School teammate and good friend Kelvin Sheppard, the Stone Mountain, Ga.-native gave strong consideration to the thought of playing for Chavis at Tennessee.


Chavis wasn’t the local recruiter for Riley or Sheppard, but he was heavily involved in the process, being that he was not only the Vols’ defensive coordinator, but also served as the linebackers coach.


Chavis made several attempts to convince Riley and Sheppard that Tennessee was a better fit, and after three months of courting the duo he was finally able to persuade them to take a visit to Knoxville - a mere 19 days away from National Signing Day.


While Riley was traveling home from his trip to Rocky Top he received a call from Bradley Dale Peveto, who was LSU’s linebackers coach at the time, and Riley informed him that he was still set on signing with the Tigers. However, in the days leading up to when he would make it official there were some tense moments on LSU’s part as Riley and Sheppard were having second and even third thoughts about what they were going to do.


It wasn’t until the night before signing day that Riley went on the record with and stated that Tennessee was no longer under consideration, and he was the first prospect reported as faxing his letter-of-intent at around 9 a.m. on that first Wednesday in February of 2006. Sheppard, on the other hand, still struggled with his decision, but finally signed his scholarship papers a couple of hours later.


Among the reasons that Riley and Sheppard both cited as to why they were strongly considering Tennessee was none other than Chavis himself.


It may have happened three years later than some predicted, but Riley and Sheppard finally got their wish to play under Chavis. Though they have yet to play a game under their new DC, Riley said Chavis’ impact was felt immediately and the intensity that he brings to the practice field has been noticeably different from a year ago.


“It’s almost a 180 (degrees), and if not then it’s a 170,” Riley said. “We definitely kick it up a notch when it comes to practicing now.”


Riley heads into his senior campaign as one of the Tigers’ leaders on defense. He started nine games last season, which was only one fewer than the other two projected starting linebackers – Sheppard and Jacob Cutrera – have started over their career.


LSU needs a big year from Perry Riley

The 6-foot-2, 245-pound Riley accumulated 60 tackles on the year – four fewer than Sheppard – which was good for third on the squad. Riley saved his best for last when he earned MVP honors on the defensive side of the ball against Georgia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.


Against the Yellow Jackets’ potent rushing attack in the Georgia Dome, he had a team-high and career-best 11 tackles. Stone Mountain is a suburb of Atlanta, so not only was Riley playing against the local school that also recruited him out of high school, but he also got a chance to play in front of a large contingent of loved ones.


“I think I had like 20 people at the game, so playing in front of a lot of family, I wanted to give them something to be proud of,” he said. “Going back home definitely gave me a little boost.”


Not only did playing in front of friends and family give him a boost, it also gave Riley momentum heading into the off-season and a new mindset that he now carries to the field each and every time he laces his cleats up.


“I’d say intensity-wise and performance-wise that was the best game I played, and now I just have to stay hungry this season,” he said. “I don’t need to wait until we get disrespected to get hungry; I need to be hungry from day one.”


Riley said that he has adapted well to Chavis’ scheme and he will have a different role this season now that he is playing Will linebacker (weak side) as opposed to playing the Buck linebacker (Sam) spot last year.


“Last year I was on the tight end a lot, whereas this year I’m going to be in the box more where I can shoot the gaps and make bigger plays in the backfield,” he said. “I’m excited about being back in the box.”


Chavis has high expectations for his linebackers, and he’s groomed some of the best in college football with four earning first-team All-America honors in Leonard Little (1997), Al Wilson (1998), Raynoch Thompson (1999) and Kevin Burnett (2004). Riley hopes to make it five, and Chavis has given him the blueprint of what it will take to be successful in 2009.


“Get to the ball and make plays,” Riley explained. “Get into the backfield and make sacks when he blitzes me. Tackles in the backfield are big and it’s really everything that a linebacker is supposed to do.”


In years past LSU employed more nickel and dime packages, where the linebackers were not on the field as much. Chavis has been adamant about the fact that there will not be nearly as much substituting for personnel matchups as there had been, and that concept has been accepted with open arms by the Tiger linebackers.


“That’s definitely a confidence booster knowing that your coach has confidence in your ability and is not trying to sub you out anytime you get a little bit of speed out there,” said Riley.


With fall camp now completed and LSU focused solely on Washington – a game that is only nine days away – Riley says there is one common theme that he hears from his teammates as they count down the days until they take the field under the new regime.


“We can’t wait to play that first game,” he said. “We can’t wait.”


And the wait to play for John Chavis is just about over for Riley and Sheppard; a little later than it could have been, but at just the right time.


“We’re where we want to be and we’re glad he’s here with us,” said Riley.

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