When the century turned, the population of La Vernia, Tex., still hadn’t cracked 1,000. Nestled 25 miles east of San Antonio, Zeke Riser’s home town contains two stoplights and a few gas stations. “We just got a grocery store,” Riser said. “So that was a pretty big deal.”
In a small town like La Vernia, the grocery store aisles became a meeting ground of sorts, a place to catch up on the rumors and gossip. Grab some bread, converse for 20 minutes, then resume shopping. Four months ago, the locals were all over Riser. Everyone was excited that the former University of Houston defensive lineman would walk on at Texas, finishing his college eligibility as a graduate student with the Longhorns.
Except it never worked out. Talks with Texas stalled, Riser said. He worried about finding employment and considered coaching, wondering if that final year of eligibility would go unused. Then an old face came along and offered an opportunity. Now, in the heartlands of the Lone Star State, a 23-hour drive from his new home, Riser began slipping the news into casual conversation, right next to the milk and eggs.
“I’m going to Maryland.”
Nothing is official yet, merely because Riser hasn’t signed his financial aid agreement. Pursuant to NCAA rules, the Maryland football team cannot comment on Riser’s status, either. But he says he’s been accepted to the university’s real estate development program. Early Tuesday morning, he’ll stuff his Chevy Tahoe to the roof and begin the two-day drive toward College Park, a place he’s only visited for 36 hours, alone on the road with some beef jerky.
“If you’re not making a trip, when else do you get beef jerky?” he said. “Probably never.”
Assuming no last-minute hiccups preclude Riser from joining the program, he will bring some much-needed experience to a defensive line that lost staples Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis to the NFL. After Justin Anderson transferred to Massachusetts, the unit was left with zero seniors and 27 combined collegiate starts. Riser, for comparison, started 27 games at Houston, playing two seasons under Brian Stewart, who was the Cougars’ defensive coordinator before taking the same job at Maryland in 2012.
“Me and Coach Stew having conversations about what the plan is for the season, going over terminology, it’s going to be really easy,” said Riser, who redshirted his sophomore season with the Cougars after tearing his ACL during spring practice. “We can talk about the defense forever. Comparing and contrasting Houston people and saying Maryland people who fit into those same roles, and what kind of plans he has in store, I’m picking up quickly already. Once I can get there and start studying a bit more on my own, film-wise, I’ll have no problem picking it up.”
When the opportunity to play for Texas fell through, Stewart was Riser’s first call. Sophomore Quinton Jefferson (0 starts), Darius Kilgo (11 starts) and junior Keith Bowers (11 starts) are listed atop Maryland’s summer depth chart, and the Terrapins didn’t promise Riser anything, except a spot in the rotation, a leadership role and an opportunity to compete for starting time.
“Whenever they said they weren’t going to guarantee, I said I’m glad that you’re not, because that’ll make me work that much harder to earn a spot,” Riser said Monday by phone. “That’s the way I want it. I’m not going to come in there and nobody’s going to hand anything to me, especially with those guys already there and already established.”
A 6-foot-4, 255-pound defensive end, Riser called the move “perfect timing.” Several weeks before Houston granted Riser his release, his sister moved to Annapolis. She’s a stay-at-home mom with three children, married to a Marine who got a job at the Naval Academy. “We’ve connected,” Riser said, “Just never really lived near each other. She was always a big fan of Maryland throughout this whole process.”
Riser’s recruitment was kept mostly kept under wraps, until word began to leak late Sunday night. If Riser wanders through the grocery store aisles, seeking last-minute provisions for his drive to Maryland – beef jerky, probably – he’ll be greeted in an unfamiliar way, by friends who have by now heard the news.
“Hey, I heard you’re going to Maryland.”