The first aspect that every Frederick County high school football coach invariably brings up when speaking of Joe Riddle is his speed — unmatched, uncontainable speed. That is, everyone except for Lancers coach Rick Conner, who calls Riddle “chunky.”
“He was a tight end type kid,” the Linganore coach said of his former standout. “He could have been an offensive tackle any given week.”
Conner, of course, knew Riddle longer than any of the other coaches, and was speaking of Riddle's youth football days when the youngster hadn't hit his growth spurt. So Conner got to see Riddle's transformation from an outside linebacker, where he was originally slotted on Linganore's junior varsity team, to one of the most dominant running backs in Frederick County who now plays for the University of Maryland, College Park.
“It's tough, he was a really, really good high school player,” Walkersville coach Joe Polce said. “Tremendous speed. You just have to hope you can get him before he can get his shoulders square because if he got the corner in high school he was going to score a touchdown.”
Polce watched Riddle get to the corner when the Terrapins came to Middletown for a scrimmage two weeks ago and that open field speed was still there. Riddle rushed for more than 100 yards and entertained the crowd with a 50-yard touchdown.
“I think a guy with that type of speed, you just have to get the ball in his hands,” said Conner, whose son, Clay, actually used to run behind Riddle's blocking in the youth football days. “Joe is probably one of the two absolute fastest kids in our program.”
Conner also had the fortune of another Division I running back, Dwayne Randall (Army) to work alongside Riddle in the backfield. Randall was the power back; Riddle, the “speed, finesse game,” as Conner called it. Together, in 2009, the duo led Linganore to a state title.
“His point A speed to point B speed — we knew if we did a good enough job up front and got him loose, nobody was going to catch him,” Conner said. And it was rare when someone did.
In Riddle's junior year he went for more than 1,000 yards and piled up 13 touchdowns. In his senior year, which was cut short after seven games by a broken bone in his left ankle, he amassed 917 yards on just 111 carries and added nine touchdowns as the Lancers went 5-2 (they lost Riddle's final game to Walkersville, in which Polce recalled stacking the box with nine linemen and linebackers to contain Riddle).
“He works incredibly hard,” Conner said. “He perseveres. Most people don't work like Joe works. Most people would probably give in; he just keeps going.”
Riddle's immediate future was affected by the injury but his long term had been set since his junior year when he committed to play for Randy Edsall and the Terps, opting for Maryland over schools such as Buffalo, Cincinnati, New Hampshire, Towson, and Virginia Military Institute.
Scouting services projected Riddle to be a return man or a special teams guy. Edsall “originally wanted me to come in and play safety,” Riddle said. “I came into camp and whatnot and they wanted me as running back.”
Any future in returning kicks was nullified by an electrifying year from Stefon Diggs, who emerged as one of the top return men in the ACC. Riddle is still on special teams — first-team kickoff coverage, kick returns, and punt returns — he's just not the one returning kicks, and is competing for snaps with a deep running back depth chart that includes Wes Brown, Albert Reid, and Brandon Ross, who are all expected to get the brunt of the carries next year.
“We're all really competitive guys,” Riddle said. “Honestly I have no idea where I'm at right now.”
Riddle red-shirted his true freshman year to grant him an extra year of eligibility and allow him to adjust to the college tempo, which he describes as “crazy.”
“It really just surprises you,” he said. “And the size is crazy too. Everybody is huge.”
Those at the Middletown scrimmage witnessed Riddle's breakneck speed, which Polce, Conner, and Knights' coach Kevin Lynott all said is as good as there is at the Division I level, and Edsall took note of his performance, saying “I know Joe was excited to get out here and he ran hard. There were a lot of good things, and it was good to see. Joe is getting better and he's just got to keep improving.”
Conner can believe it now that Riddle is playing Division I ball. When Riddle first spoke of his goal to do that back in middle school, “I would say 'That's a good goal, I don't know how realistic it is, but that's a good goal,'” Conner said.
Now, the Linganore coach says “I could see, down the road, me taking the kids to go to a Maryland game to watch Joe.”