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Dick Harmon: Determined Skyler Ridley has become a key part of BYU's talented receiving corps

Published: Saturday, July 4 2015 1:44 p.m. MDT

Skyler Ridley makes a catch as the BYU football team practices and scrimmages on Aug. 10 at Lavell Edwards Stadium. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Skyler Ridley makes a catch as the BYU football team practices and scrimmages on Aug. 10 at Lavell Edwards Stadium. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

PROVO — Skyler Ridley’s grandma Ethel Poulton is in the intensive care unit of a Murrieta, Calif., hospital fighting for her life after suffering a stroke this past week. Poulton's family is playing the waiting game, praying for improvement for the 88-year-old matriarch during an August nobody in her family anticipated.

Before Grandma Ethel’s setback, she did get word that Skyler, whose sports career she has faithfully followed all his life, was given a BYU football scholarship and that head coach Bronco Mendenhall told reporters that NFL scouts had asked about her grandson.

From the stands, starting in Pop Warner and continuing through high school, Ethel used to get mad when opposing players would pile on Skyler at the end of a play. She was so relieved when he got back up.

He's always gotten back up, something that's surely made Ethel enormously proud. In one of BYU’s more talented receiving corps in a very long time, Skyler has become a key element.

His work ethic, ability to get open, and skill to catch the ball make him a throwback. Ridley represents the stereotypical BYU receiver, the athletes Ty Detmer threw to for more than 15,000 yards and 121 touchdowns — guys like Eric Drage, Bryce Doman, Chuck Cutler, Andy Boyce and Jeff Frandsen.

Athlon Sports ranked BYU’s 2013 receiving corps No. 12 nationally. Ridley is not the Herculean Cody Hoffman, the greyhound Ross Apo or the 6-foot-6, mitts-for-hands Marcus Mathews. What he is, however, is a daylight artist who is tough to cover and does not drop balls.

It is fitting that still means something at BYU.

“I think we forget how dependable and good those other guys have been,” said Ty Detmer.

“He’s a technician,” says receivers coach Guy Holliday. “He is really skilled technically. He’s a for-hire guy, very similar to guys BYU has had in the past, and he’s tough. He has the skills that help you win football games. “

"He's quick, fast and tough — and he just goes one speed," Mendenhall said.

Senior Hoffman agrees.

“He’s really a fundamental guy. He has a great work ethic and he makes plays when we need it,” said Hoffman. “Like you’ve seen, when we need a deep ball he can make it; when we need somebody to go across the middle on third down and we need something to happen we can count on him to make a play. He’s really smooth. He works hard; he’s a smart guy; he can read the defense, which really helps when you aren’t the fastest guy.”

Following family footsteps

Kevin Ridley wanted all his kids to grow up with balls in their hands — footballs, baseballs, basketballs or soccer balls, it didn’t matter. As a football and baseball player who became a college baseball player, he enjoyed the challenge and wanted to inspire that love for sports in his kids. His oldest, Ryan, gobbled it up, made all the teams and was a quarterback at Murrieta Valley. His other sons followed, including Skyler, who was seven years younger and looked up to his brother, loved his competitive spirit, drive and skills.

Hatched out of the thousands of hours of the pass-catch game with Kevin and then Ryan, Skyler developed a love for running routes and catching the ball. In time he developed an eye for the ball, the ability to adjust, change direction, speed up, get open and grow the fast-twitch muscle and steady hands to be a clutch possession receiver.

Always quick on his feet, Skyler was chosen to play shortstop and center field in baseball, then receiver and safety in football. As a defender, coaches discovered his innate ability to understand routes, QB reads, defenses and even toyed with making him a quarterback. As a safety, he could cover ground and wasn’t afraid to deliver hits. As a receiver, he simply got open and made catches.

“He was always known for getting open,” said Kevin. “He had a reputation for being quick.” Although Skyler ran a 4.7 40-yard dash in high school, which he’s improved on, it wasn’t clock speed that enabled Kevin's son to impress. It was game speed.

“I’d say I’m more like that game-speed player,” said Skyler. “Coming out of high school, people wanted to see that 40 time speed come down, but when I get on the field with that adrenaline it helps me to turn on the jets.”

Holliday pinpoints why Ridley’s game speed supersedes his timed speed.

“That comes from having a high football IQ,” said the coach. “If you don’t necessarily have all the physical attributes you can overcome that mentally by working and understanding the game. He knows how to find and work the seams and we’re working with him to get out of press coverage. He doesn’t drop passes; he’s always there; he works very hard, is always there in practice, and he’s a leader. Players look up to him and when there’s ever a question, he’s there to help teammates. You tell him one time and it’s fixed. That’s what you like as a coach.”

In this regard, he is like one of his heroes, current San Francisco 49ers receiver Austin Collie, whom he first met when Collie came off his LDS mission and Ridley was a walk-on. Collie never had blazing speed, but he got open. Defenders couldn’t cover him and he became BYU’s all-time leading receiver.

Some will call this sacrilege, but if you watch Ridley day in and day out, Ridley reminds you of Collie. Much of what he does technically, he learned personally from Collie.

In addition, Robert Anae’s offense enables a player like Ridley to take advantage of angles, attack pace and put pressure on secondaries. In playing alongside Hoffman, Apo and Mathews — more physically talented players who draw defensive attention — Ridley thrives.

“The schemes BYU coaches are putting in help us to take advantage of each individual player; it isn’t based around one particular person. It’s about being fast and taking advantage of weaknesses and we’ve been able to do that so far in camp,” said Ridley.

Ridley credits Collie for teaching him the tricks of the trade, like how to come out of the top of routes — things that work in getting a defender to turn his hips. “I’m not as much of a deep threat, but the things I do in the first 10 yards allow me to get open — whether I’m going on a deep route, curl route, comeback or whatever we run,” said Ridley. “Turning hips is something we are always trying to do and he taught me how to sell the deep route. Coach Holliday is always talking about feet, arms and head, but a lot of what Austin shared with me when I was a freshman is to turn hips, so when they turn one way, you go the other way. His routes were incredible.”

Unafraid of work

Murrieta Valley High School is located on the Santa Rosa plateau on the west end of the valley. It is an area that's produced current Cougars Tyler Beck and AJ Moore in addition to their senior teammate Ridley.

If you drive down Nighthawk Way or Washington Avenue you can see a monument to the work ethic of Skyler Ridley, who as his high school student body president used his Eagle Scout project to transform the face of the school’s baseball field.

When he was 17 years old, Ridley organized volunteers from all of Murrieta’s baseball programs (freshman, sophomore, varsity) and members of his LDS ward to raise the center-field fence by 30 feet. It included setting new footings to support a giant batting cage. He went to local businesses for donations of materials and money, and then organized the construction after obtaining permissions, permits and district approval. To this day, it is a key element of the school’s baseball program and community little league and Pony League programs.

Skyler Ridley is not afraid of work.

It is this attribute that got Ridley a scholarship to BYU for the 2013 season. He previously labored as a walk-on — a journeyman who kept coming back for more and more punishment with little reward.

In the spring of 2012, following season after season of giving everything he had to make BYU’s team, Ridley decided not to play anymore. He remembers after one practice two defensive coaches, Nick Howell and Kelly Poppinga, approached him and told him they were impressed with his play. The encouragement gave him a spark and he gained confidence, which refueled his desire.

“We would scrimmage and I’d make a play, then another play. It was day by day and quarterbacks began believing in me. Against Washington State I came in and helped our team win and I could see and feel how I could help our team win games,” he said.

Humbled, he remembers the road.

“I remember walking on as a freshman in 2007 and playing with guys like Austin Collie, Dennis Pitta, Max Hall and defensive guys like Kelly Poppinga, Brian Kehl. I felt young and small but also very privileged to be in a program playing Division I ball.

“Back then I felt I had a long way to go to get in that stadium and play. It’s been a long road, but it’s been something that will impact my life. Being part of that team, last year’s team and this team is a stepping stone to future things. Right now, my confidence has grown a lot but I’m reminded each day that I’m playing against Division I guys and one of the best defenses in the country. And so it’s been fun to get better with the great players we have on this team.”

The day Mendenhall called him in and gave him a scholarship, Ridley felt nothing but gratitude because he never felt entitled. Like his Eagle project, he didn’t shun the work.

“I wouldn’t change a thing about my experience here. There were some tough days being on the scout team for multiple years and it was hard to come out and be excited about coming out and practicing, but my experience here is going to impact every day as I go forward — whether it is in athletics or anything else I pursue. I’m grateful that coach Mendenhall has rewarded my effort as a team member here.”

Next level

NFL scouts have asked about Ridley?

Yes.

Mendenhall told reporters after one of BYU’s early fall practices that pro scouts visiting to inspect Hoffman asked about Ridley.

That must have been music to the ears of Kevin Ridley, a man who has spent a lifetime digging a platform of sports for his sons. For a happy, go-lucky son who likes to sing in the shower and dance, such news would be a symphony.

“He reminds me of Lance Long at Mississippi State,” said Holliday, who has helped 20 players advance to the NFL during his career. Long has played for the Cardinals, Chiefs and Lions.

“Diligence and work ethic. Lance wasn’t a 4.4 (40-yard dash) guy, but he made himself a big part of it and fast because he was smart and made himself into an NFL guy and he’s still playing in the league. We’ll see what happens. You never know when you get out of camp, but there is always a need for a dependable guy who shows up, works hard, just catches footballs and is good in the run game. We will see.”

The fate of Ridley, Hoffman, Matthews, Apo, regenerated QB Taysom Hill and Anae’s new design to "go fast, go hard" is in the hands of a rebuilt offensive line.

But there have been moments this summer when Ridley and Co. have got a glimpse of what can happen.

Just days into camp, the offense exploded. And it was something to behold.

“I don’t think, in all my years on this team, our offense ever had a day like that,” said Ridley.

“If we have the guys to give our quarterbacks time to throw, we have the guys to get up and get it. We get 5 yards here and there and then make a big play with guys like Cody and Mitch going up and getting the ball. It’s exciting and that’s what the offense is designed to do.

“I think as you’ve seen, we’ve worn down our defensive backs and I expect we will do that as teams come here or we travel. Really, there is no way you can prepare for the speed at which we are running our offense in just four or five days. So, it is a huge advantage against any team we play this year.”

What has stood out as a receiver?

“The deep ball,” said Ridley. “I haven’t seen us throw the deep ball this often and this well in a long time, probably since Austin (Collie) was here.”

As BYU propels toward the opener at Virginia on Aug. 31, the Ridley story takes a back seat, as it should, to the health of Grandma Poulton, whose family is watching and praying for her.

“It was tough the other night to hear she had a stroke,” said Skyler. “I hope she gets better.”

However it goes, Ethel can be proud she produced a grandson who continues to get up and press forward. By all accounts, he's an example worth believing in today.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

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