Elijah Riley has a knack for making big plays on the big stage.
Take the 2017 Armed Forces Bowl, for instance. Riley, then a sophomore at Army, returned an intercepted lateral 29 yards for a touchdown as time expired to assure the 42-35 win over San Diego State. Or October of last year, when the cornerback had nine tackles and kept Oklahoma star receiver CeeDee Lamb largely under wraps in an overtime loss. Or just last month, when his name was all over the box score as the Black Knights nearly stunned then-No. 7 Michigan on the road.
But for the Newfield High School alum and Port Jefferson native, those games are no different than any other.
“I just love the sport, I love to compete,” Riley said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. I guess it just kind of seems that way, that I have my best performances against bigger teams, but I’m just out there playing.”
Riley, a team captain in his senior year, has become the Black Knights' top defender and a potential NFL Draft pick. His has forced three fumbles this season, a number that is tied for second in the NCAA. He has 26 tackles (five for loss), three sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery in four games heading into Saturday’s game against Tulane.
One of Riley’s big-game moment scame against Michigan on Sept. 7. He had a career-high 13 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in Army's 24-21 double-overtime loss. Coach Jeff Monken said a few days after the game that Riley’s sack-fumble recovery of quarterback Shea Patterson was “one of the best football plays I've seen since I've been here.”
“[Defensive coordinator John Loose] called a blitz from the corner and he came off the edge and the back just barely got a little piece of him,” Monken said. “That's something, that particular fundamental, we work on every week at practice . . . It's just fantastic to see that played out right there in that scenario. It was a terrific play to knock it out and then get on the ball, and he had several really good plays in the game.”
Army has increased its win total each year since Riley arrived. The Black Knights were 2-10 in 2015 – the year Riley committed to the Black Knights after winning the Hansen Award and leading Newfield to the Class II Long Island Championship. Army followed with season records of 8-5, 10-3 and 11-2, and is 3-1 this season.
“It starts at the top,” Riley said of the program. “Coach Monken kind of helped turn the program around. He helped change the culture of what we’ve got going on here, and it was all a matter of the guys on the team embodying it, and buying into everything that he was saying, and just taking full control of what we can control. Buying into the little things, taking care of everything as small as picking up a piece of trash and putting it in your locker to just having your foot in the right place while you’re out here on the field.”
As a team captain, Riley has had a big role in keeping the culture going in the locker room, too.
“The biggest thing is not allowing the younger guys to slip down towards complacency and preventing that as much as possible,” he said. “That’s what we want to build off of – not allowing complacency to be the legacy that we leave.”
“He’s meant a lot to our team, just in the last year and a half,” Monken said of Riley. “Starting his junior year, he blossomed as a leader, a guy that our guys feed off of. I'm really glad he's on our football team."
It’s also helped him get on the radar of NFL teams. Riley, who was named to preseason watch lists for the Bednarik and Nagurski Awards, said a few teams have scouted him at practice. Under a new rule, he may get a chance to play on Sundays.
President Trump signed a memorandum in July ordering the Department of Defense to draft a new policy by late October that would allow military student-athletes to immediately defer their five-year active-duty obligation. The memorandum effectively reinstates a policy that was ended in 2017, which allowed special exemptions for service academy athletes to play in the pros.
Prior to the memorandum, service academy athletes were required to serve at least two years of active duty before going pro and applying for reserve status for their final three years.
Former Navy star Keenan Reynolds was allowed to serve in the reserves as an officer after he was drafted by the Ravens in 2016. He is a free agent now. Patriots long snapper Joe Cardona, who entered the league in 2015, also is in the reserves and works at the Naval Preparatory Academy in Rhode Island on team off-days. Cardinals offensive lineman Brett Toth, who graduated from Army in 2018 and already had served one year of active duty before the rule change, was granted a waiver in August. Vikings long snapper Austin Cutting, a seventh-round pick last May, is serving as a recruiting officer for the Air Force while playing for Minnesota.
Riley called the experience of being scouted “cool to see” and already is working on his game so he can make an impact on Sundays.
“I’m just trying to become more of a technician,” the 6-foot, 205-pound Riley said. “I’m a stronger corner, so I’m able to get the best of guys just because I’m stronger. But being a technician, having my feet in the right place, hands in the right place, and just continuing to be a sure tackler."