Blue collar to blue chip: How Memphis QB Riley Ferguson went from washing fences to NFL prospect

Pete Thamel
Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson threw a school-record 32 touchdown passes last year. (AP)

The phone rang at Independent Fence Distributors in Fort Mill, S.C., earlier this week, and the woman with a polite Southern twang couldn’t place the name. Riley Ferguson? Who? How long ago did he work here?

She transferred the call to Joe Kitchen, Independent Fence’s general manager, and the name rang a bell. He remembered Riley Ferguson, the lanky kid who’d get covered in a dirty glaze – black, white or bronze – most days after powder-coating fences. Kitchen recalled a hard worker who impressed most during lunch breaks. “He could throw a football across the whole parking lot,” Kitchen said. “He left to go to junior college, somewhere in Kansas. I haven’t followed him since, been kind of busy.”

It’ll be easy to find Riley Ferguson on Saturday, as he’ll be the starting quarterback for Memphis against No. 25 UCLA at the Liberty Bowl. The game will be broadcast nationally on ABC, and Ferguson’s on-field quarterback foil will be Josh Rosen, the potential No. 1 overall NFL draft pick. Ferguson has come a long way from an eight-month hiatus from football in 2014, one that saw him detailing cars at a Kia dealership for $7 per hour before upgrading to his $9 per hour job at the fence company.

Ferguson recalls the tipping point in his time away from football coming on a day when he didn’t have enough money to buy lunch. “I sat at the warehouse by myself,” Ferguson told Yahoo Sports. “I said, ‘This is unbelievable.’ I’m sitting here hungry and have no money. I know I could be doing something else with my life.”

From fence posts to post patterns, Ferguson’s stop-and-go route from blue-collar grunt work to blue-chip NFL draft prospect is one of the most unique journeys in college football. And his vagabond path – three-star recruit to manual labor to JUCO rehabilitation – offers the perfect contrast to Rosen. In just three seasons after arriving at UCLA as the No. 1 pro-style quarterback, Rosen projects as a top-10 NFL draft pick.

Ferguson arrived at this moment after his football career went from conventional to circuitous during the spring of 2014. That’s when a former can’t-miss prospect from the Class of 2013 went missing.

Ferguson committed to Tennessee in June of 2012 after leading Butler High School (Matthews, N.C.) to a pair of state titles and throwing for more than 8,000 yards. Ferguson has bounced around the block so long that he was once a key pledge for former coach Derek Dooley. (According to Rivals.com, offers came from Alabama, Clemson, Louisville, LSU and Michigan).

Ferguson wanted to leave soon after he arrived, regretting not re-opening his recruitment after Dooley’s firing. He stuck out the year, but disappeared that spring, later saying he regretted not calling coach Butch Jones to inform him of his departure.

Complicating matters, Tennessee restricted where Ferguson could transfer. His mother, Diana Kirby, told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday night that Tennessee refused to release him to schools other than UNC-Charlotte and FCS schools like Florida A&M. It’s typical practice for schools to block a transfer in their own league and to future opponents, but Kirby said Tennessee’s restriction level exceeded that. “Every time we’d call Tennessee to ask questions, we always felt like we were getting the runaround,” she said. “We’d never ask you to release him to go to an SEC school.”

She found the school’s stance on her son much different than the player-first rhetoric preached by coach Butch Jones upon his arrival: “If you’re all about the kids, let your actions say that.”

(Tennessee declined comment.)

Riley Ferguson (10) is stopped during the Orange and White game during his Tennessee days in 2014. (AP file photo)

In December of 2014, Ferguson decided to go to junior college. When former University of North Carolina recruiting staffer Rory Pommerening heard this, he called his close friend, Angelo Mirando, at Coffeyville Community College in rural Kansas. It took Mirando, who was Coffeyville’s offensive coordinator, three highlight clips to decide he wanted Ferguson.

One JUCO season and 2,942 yards later, Ferguson eventually found himself back in the college football mainstream. Then-Arkansas State offensive coordinator Walt Bell recruited him the hardest. New Texas offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert wanted him to visit campus with his family, where an offer would be forthcoming. Arkansas showed heavy interest. “I think he realized, this is my last shot and I can’t screw it up,” said Mirando, who is the offensive coordinator at Eastern Kentucky now.

When Mike Norvell got the head coaching job at Memphis in December of 2015, he flew over to Coffeyville on his second day. He liked Ferguson so much he canceled all his other scheduled quarterback recruiting visits. The Tigers needed a quarterback, and Norvell found Ferguson raw and honest in recounting his story. Ferguson had been recruited heavily since age 14, getting 20 to 30 letters a day. He finally found a pitch that resonated, as he learned from his time at Tennessee that the biggest school isn’t necessarily the best one. “Talking to him for some reason, I felt a connection,” Ferguson said of Norvell, who is 35. “I think I could connect to him because he was so young and I could relate.”

Norvell found a 6-foot-4 quarterback with elite retention of offensive concepts and a rare ability to translate plays from the grease board to the practice field. He also found a quarterback humbled by his path and locked in on straightening it out. Ferguson won the starting job at Memphis, and in 2016 he threw for 3,698 yards, 32 touchdowns and completed 63 percent of his passes in Norvell’s wide-open system. Ferguson is considered one of the top 10 quarterback prospects, as scouts see him as a potential late-round pick. “If he’s not a legit NFL quarterback,” Norvell said, “I don’t know if I’ll see one.”

There will be a lot of eyeballs on Memphis this weekend. Five NFL scouts will be at the Liberty Bowl – from the Buffalo Bills, Washington Redskins, L.A. Chargers, Arizona Cardinals and Oakland Raiders – and the visit from a nationally ranked Pac-12 school and potential No. 1 pick has the town buzzing.

It’s a big enough stage where maybe even the boys from Independent Fence will tune in. Riley Ferguson throwing spirals on a nationally televised ABC game is a long way from a parking lot in South Carolina. And everyone will surely agree, he looks better in HD than covered in powder coating.

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