Dillon Radunz’s rise to high profile NFL prospect, told by the man who helped start it all

If you ever get the chance to talk to Kansas State offensive line coach Conor Riley, odds are you’ll be in for a bit of a treat. From a discussion about a movie I’ve never heard of, to tales about meeting rooms and tables, Riley is a person that’s ready to sit down and have a fun conversation with you at the drop of a hat.

But while Riley can talk to you about almost anything positive, the one conversation he really loves to dive into is the time and experience he had coaching Dillon Radunz, the offensive tackle the Tennessee Titans selected with their second round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

“I love the type of person he is,” Riley said. “I love the type of competitor he is.”

Riley coached at North Dakota State University for six years, coaching Radunz for three of those seasons. The time he spent with Radunz was valuable, so much so that you could say that he himself was an integral piece of the developmental puzzle for Radunz.

But before Radunz became a veteran starter at tackle for the Bisons, and before he became a high profile tackle prospect, he didn’t really desire a chance to become a mainstay on the offensive line.

In fact, Radunz most wanted a chance to contribute on the defensive side of the ball above all else.

Aiding in Radunz’s transition to offensive tackle

Radunz was a defense first type of player early on in his football journey. He played on the defensive line throughout high school, and while doing so showed off some pretty impressive athletic traits coaches across the country look for in their linemen on both sides of the ball.

“When you watched him his junior year [of high school], it was predominantly defensive film,” Riley said. “But what you saw with that defensive film was clearly great athleticism, his ability to bend, his ability to change direction.”

So an idea popped up in Riley’s head, one that shaped the beginning of a long and illustrious career at North Dakota State University. Instead of watching Radunz continue on as a defensive linemen, Riley wanted to see if Radunz could hold his own as an offensive tackle.

In fact, the wheels of the idea had already begun to churn before Radunz even stepped on NDSU’s campus.

“I remember having conversations with his [high school] head football coach. He said Dillon can play at a very high level on the defensive line in college. But he may be able to one day play in the NFL on the offensive line.”

Once Riley got a chance to set his eyes on Radunz and work with him at an NDSU summer football camp, Radunz got a chance to show the potential he had on the offensive side of the football. But things didn’t start off so hot, which isn’t rare for a high school player trying to change their position so suddenly.

“He didn’t play a lot of offensive line [in high school], so there was a little bit of a projection,” Riley explained. “He was very raw with a lot of his offensive line techniques.”

During the camp, Radunz received an opportunity to show off a little bit of his power and footwork against a player that had already committed to the FCS powerhouse.

Radunz didn’t disappoint.

“We were doing a one on one board drill, and he was going up against a young defensive lineman who was actually committed to North Dakota State,” Riley explained. “This guy was kind of having some words with him, maybe a little trash talking, and obviously Dillon didn’t appreciate that.”

What occurred next was an eye opening moment for Riley, one that sold him on the idea of Radunz being able to make the transition he had envisioned.

“I looked at Dillon and said you know there’s only one way to shut this guy up,” Riley told me. “And Dillon got on that board and literally walked him [the trash talker] off that board. [After that occurred] I looked at our head coach [at the time, Chris Klieman and just started laughing.”

It’s safe to say Riley was more than impressed than what he saw from Radunz. Once Radunz committed to NDSU — despite fighting off some late attention from an unnamed SEC school — he quickly worked his way up the ladder, and eventually became a candidate for some early playing time.

However, once it seemed like everything was headed upward, Dillon was met with some early adversity.

Radunz’s rapid rise and sudden fall

During his redshirt freshman season, Radunz started receive a lot of attention from his coaches and teammates for his supreme athletic ability and his passion to compete.

“It didn’t take too long for the others players on that team to recognize the athletic ability that Dillon had,” Riley explained. “Every time that we had a staff meeting on a Sunday, the defensive line coaches, the defensive coordinator, and the head coach just raved about how athletic this young man was, how competitive he was [as a scout team player].”

If you’ve ever played high school or college football, you should know that coaches preach the importance of scout team players giving the regular starters a good look during practice. It’s the best way to replicate in game situations and personnel, so giving maximum effort during those scout team periods is extremely important.

However, no competitor wants to stay on the sideline with a helmet in hand. They want to play, to truly make an impact on the game they grew up loving so much.

Riley recognized Radunz’s desire to compete at the highest level possible at the time, and gave some encouraging words to him as he waited on his turn to get the snaps I’m sure he desired.

“I told him I want you to continue to earn it, I want you to continue to develop that hunger to earn that start.”

Eventually, Radunz got his chance to play, even starting the season opener as a red-shirt freshman. But he tore his ACL just 17 snaps into the start of his college career, making a time that should’ve been so joyous, turn into one that made all his future plans and endeavors come to a screeching halt.

“He did end up tearing his knee in that particular game [the first game he played in],” Riley said. “That whole experience was challenging for him. How much he had to rely on his family, and his faith through all that adversity.”

But Radunz fought his way through rehab, and and ultimately found his way back onto the field where he played at a very high level, playing a big part in the program’s run of winning three straight FCS national titles from 2017 to 2019. He was also named first team All-MVC in 2019 and an FCS All-American in 2018.

But all of those awards and all of that success goes out the window once Radunz steps onto the fields of Saint Thomas Sports Park. He’ll be tasked with putting his head down and going to work just like he did when he first arrived as a freshman at NDSU.

How does he see Radunz playing at right tackle?

Radunz received so many accolades and achieved so much success after that tough knee injury, but he did so primarily playing at left tackle. There’s always the chance he could come on as an injury replacement on the left side, but if he wants to receive as much early playing time as possible with the Titans, it’s going to come with him stealing a starting spot at right tackle.

Conor Riley knows this though, and thinks Radunz is up for the challenge ahead.

“I know he’ll have no issue at all adjusting to that [playing right tackle],” Riley said. “No issue adjusting to a right handed stance.”

This isn’t true for everyone, but some out there might view the transition from left tackle to right tackle as simple or maybe even easy. But it isn’t, in fact it’s a new experience that requires a different form of technique that might take some time to get used to.

It might not be an overwhelming process, but the little tweaks and changes can sometimes make that process a little challenging. You might lean a bit differently during your pass sets, you might move your hips a certain way on the right side compared to the left, and not to mention the different assignments you receive in any event of a position change on the offensive line.

For a rookie that’s just now entering the NFL, all of that might come across as a little overwhelming.

However, Riley isn’t worried about Radunz not being up to the task. He has full confidence in Radunz’s ability to grasp the situation, take it by the horns, and rag doll it until it eventually goes his way. Such confidence doesn’t entirely come from Radunz’s impressive competitive nature either.

According to Riley, Radunz was put through a gauntlet of potential position changes, including one at center. Those experiences he says will help Radunz as he tries to carve out a starting role for the Titans at right tackle.

“I know he’ll have no issue at all adjusting to that [to playing right tackle],” Riley said. “He’s going to look at everything as an opportunity.”

The personal relationship

You see stories here and there about coaches and their incredible ability to forge special bonds with their players, whether it’s due to something they both have in common or the coach simply reaching out to that player and wanting to help them as much as they can.

Conor Riley’s relationship with Radunz is one relating to the latter.

“Really the relationship he and I [Radunz] have, it revolves around trust, and that’s why we have such a great relationship.”

Trust isn’t an easy thing to develop between player and coach.

Sometimes is can be difficult for a player to trust a coach. There could be underlying issues that a player has with trusting others, or past experiences that have made that player unwilling to open their selves up a bit. It can sometimes be compared to a psychological puzzle, one that can be incredibly difficult to solve.

But with Radunz and Riley, it seems like those two clicked rather early and forged a bond that still carries its strength today.

“That’s why I tell the kid, before I hang up the phone, that I love him,” Riley told me over the phone on Monday night. “It’s a unique story.”

Riley took the word unique and cranked it up to the max with his actions after a prior dominating performance from Radunz. Riley was in a meeting room reviewing Radunz’s film from his exceptional performance, and did something that perfectly captured the amount of support he has for the now former NDSU standout.

“I remember upon reviewing that film in our meeting room,” Riley said. “The other guys in the room are sitting there going holy cow just laughing.”

Riley didn’t just do the normal thing and solely laugh along. Instead, he jumped on a table, and reenacted a notable scene from the movie Swingers.

“I remember standing on my chair doing the same thing [in the scene]. They [people present in the room] were probably wondering what the hell I was doing, but I was just explaining how much [Dillon grew up].”

At the end of the day though, when all the jokes and football talk are gone from Riley’s immediate thoughts, Riley goes back to the sheer love and care he has for Radunz. Riley has been a mainstay in Radunz’s life from the moment the two met at a measly football camp at North Dakota State, and that probably isn’t changing soon even as Radunz makes the jump from college to the beast known as the NFL.

Radunz might need that extra support as well since it varies how prospects adjust to the life as a professional football player. But if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that Riley will be there for Radunz when the going gets a little tough.

That’s just how close the two are.

“I love Dillon and I love his family.”

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