By Chris Whitfield
Coming into this past football season, Southeast Whitfield High School senior Easton Ridley wasn’t known for his offensive skills.
He had been strictly a defensive contributor for the Raiders for his first three years at Southeast. But that changed midway through the schedule as Ridley began to see more and more time in the backfield of coach Sean Gray’s spread offense because of injuries to others.
By the time the year ended, some might have wondered why it took so long for Ridley to see action on both sides of the ball.
Although he started just five games on offense, Ridley finished with 623 yards and eight touchdowns on 100 carries and was one of the area’s more productive running backs. Now he’ll have a chance to showcase those skills for the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth, Kan., after signing with the Spires on Wednesday afternoon at Southeast.
Saint Mary — according to its website, stmary.edu, the Catholic liberal arts university was founded by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in 1923 — is an NAIA institution and a member of the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference.
While it’s no short trip from home, Ridley doesn’t mind leaving the nest and flying all the way to the Midwest.
“Part of growing up is getting away from what you are used to,” he said. “It is just somewhere new. I have been there a few times, and I have been talking with them for quite a while.”
The 5-foot-10-inch, 195-pounder with good speed and quick, cutting moves has family connections with Saint Mary. Older brother Kameron Ridley played there after graduating from Chattanooga’s Tennessee Temple Academy in 2007 — he had previously played at Southeast — where he rushed for more than 1,400 yards while leading the team to a 12-1 record and the state quarterfinals his senior season of high school.
The elder Ridley originally went to Hampden-Sydney College, an NCAA Division III college in Virginia, but later transferred to Saint Mary. According to statistics at naia.org, he rushed for 1,018 yards and 13 touchdowns from 2009 to 2011, his three seasons with the Spires. He also was a threat in the receiving game, hauling in 62 passes for 674 yards and three touchdowns.
The younger Ridley said his college choices came down to Saint Mary and Pittsburg State University, an NCAA Division II school also located in Kansas. He said the opportunity for earlier playing time at Saint Mary was the deciding factor.
The Spires were 6-5 last season and went 6-3 in conference play — they bounced back with six straight KCAC wins after opening with losses in their first three conference games.
Gray, who took over the Southeast program before Ridley’s senior season — the Raiders went 2-8 in 2012 — said the two-way standout will do well in the college game.
“He was a late bloomer, and going into the season we had no clue the kind of impact player he would be for us this year,” Gray said. “He was our go-to guy at the end of the year. He is a good hard-nosed football player. He was one of our youngest seniors, and I think he will just get stronger and better with time.”
In a release, Spires coach Jay Osborne indicated he and his staff have been keeping an eye on Ridley for a while.
“We are very excited that Easton has chosen to follow in his brother’s footsteps,” Osborne said. “Easton first came on our recruiting radar three years ago when he visited campus for a game. The entire staff took notice of him when he was able to keep up with Kameron Ridley in the weight room. Our offensive staff kept tabls on him from that time until now, hoping that Easton would choose the University of Saint Mary.
“Easton will play running back and compete for playing time immediately. We feel that he is a great fit in our system and hope that one day he will break his brother’s school records for longest carry (92 yards) and longest reception (90).”
Ridley also shined at strongside linebacker for the Raiders, recording 52 tackles with three tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
“He is a very physical player, and people had a hard time getting outside of him,” Gray said. “But Saint Mary is looking at him for offense. He had great balance, great speed and showed his toughness. Those last few games, he was bouncing off of people and spinning out of tackles and putting moves on people that were just phenomenal. As we gave him the ball more and more, the better he got.”
Ridley said that as he became more and more comfortable at the position, he also enjoyed it more and more. His speed — 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash — also helped out.
“It just took me a while to read defenses well and find the holes and find my blockers,” he said. “Once that happened, it all came a lot more naturally.”