Butler quarterback Riley Ferguson had visions of how his senior season would play out. The University of Tennessee commit could clearly see himself leading the Bulldogs to another state championship, the same way he’d done as a sophomore.
But Ferguson’s season hasn’t gone as he’d initially planned, and the latest turn came last weekend when Tennessee fired its coach, Derek Dooley.
Ferguson said the coaching change wouldn’t affect his recruitment.
“It doesn’t change anything for me,” Ferguson said. “(Offensive coordinator) Coach (Jim) Chaney’s the interim coach, and he’s the one who recruited me. We have a great relationship, so if (he gets the permanent head-coaching job), that’d be great.
“It matters who the coach is, but I have to meet with the new coach and start to develop a relationship with them. Hopefully it’s a cool coach and we can move on.”
Dooley’s firing is part of a several twists and turns to Ferguson’s senior season.
Before the season began, Ferguson participated in the ESPN RISE Elite 11 showcase, an event that put Ferguson among the top 25 quarterbacks in the country.
At the showcase, Ferguson broke a bone in his right (throwing) thumb. He competed in the camp anyway, but mostly because of the injury, didn’t fare as well as he’d hoped he would. Instead of further climbing the recruiting hierarchy,
Ferguson felt he was overlooked, but he took things in stride.
“I knew I had to play through my injury, so I played and did OK,” Ferguson said. “But once the camp was over, I was like ‘OK, now I get to go home and play my senior season with these guys who are like brothers to me.”’
The season started well for Ferguson and his Butler teammates, as they opened the year with a 27-6 win over Mallard Creek – which also happens to be the Bulldogs’ opponent on Friday, Nov. 23, when the two teams square off with a trip to the state championship game on the line.
Ferguson threw three interceptions against the Mavericks in August but rebounded to lead Butler to easy wins over Olympic and Vance.
Then, while lifting weights in a gym class on Sept. 13, Ferguson suffered another injury, breaking a bone in the same hand, which would eventually sideline him for six games.
The injury was devastating to Ferguson.
“I went and talked to Coach (Brian) Hales, and he was saying that I’d be OK,” Ferguson said. “But I was saying, ‘Coach, it’s really messed up. Something’s wrong with it.'”
The second injury was a major setback, but Ferguson said doctors told him if it’d happened to 100 people, 99 would’ve required surgery, something Ferguson avoided.
He said sitting out was one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do. While Ferguson was depressed about his recent fate, Hales noticed something different about his star.
“Riley has grown so mature during (the injury),” Hales said. “Last year, he probably would’ve moped around and pouted, but this year he’s so mature about it. Even the small things, like spotting the ball when we’re running 7-on-7 drills in practice. The kids see that and notice his maturity.
“He was over there during practice encouraging the quarterbacks. He was doing it during games and helping them with little nuances of the game that I or (receivers coach Mark) Sanders can’t see. His maturity was the biggest thing.”
Ferguson said sitting out was terrible, but in his place senior Zach Gross and sophomore Anthony Ratliff split time and helped Butler win all six games.
On Oct. 22, Ferguson had his cast removed and received the doctor’s approval to return against rival Independence four days later. Even though he was healthy, Ferguson insisted that Hales have Gross start the game.
“Sitting out just made me realize how much I love football,” Ferguson said. “I sat and tried to do all I could to help Zach and Anthony, but I couldn’t wait to get back out there. I cherish everything now, because any game can be your last. It can get taken from you so fast.”
In an ironic twist of fate, during the season finale against Independence, Gross broke the same bone Ferguson had broken in gym class. Gross said he could possibly return for the state championship game, where he’d be catching passes from
Ferguson, assuming the Bulldogs can get past Mallard Creek Friday.
“I’m upset for Zach because he can’t play anymore, that’s why I know we have to win states for him,” Ferguson said.
“When I was out I was thanking God the whole time because He had a plan. I got hurt during probably the easiest part of the schedule and came back during the toughest. When I came back, Zach got hurt, so it makes me think it’s all for a reason.”
Ferguson has shined since returning from his latest injury, and he credits his receiving corps, which he said have stepped up all season.
His favorite passing target, Uriah LeMay, returned to the field last week after serving a two-game suspension, but Ferguson said Cadarius Harrison and Kam Billings have shown rapid improvement and developed into bona fide go-to guys.
“Cadarius and Kam have to be North Carolina’s two most underrated receivers,” Ferguson said. “They have grown so much this year.”
Hales said Ferguson has grown, too, and is a big reason it hasn’t mattered when LeMay or any number of Bulldogs have missed time this year.
Despite missing six games, Ferguson’s still thrown for 1,565 yards and 18 touchdowns on the year against six interceptions.
Hales said his star quarterback’s maturity was on full display during last week’s 25-15 win over East Forsyth, which was a physical, running team capable of going on long, time-consuming drives.
Ferguson completed 11 of his 15 passes for just 119 yards against East Forsyth, instead deferring to Josh Glisson. The standout running back carried 29 times for 176 yards and two touchdowns and added a touchdown reception from Ferguson, who gladly took a backseat to Glisson and the Bulldogs’ ground game, which tallied 42 carries.
“Riley played the best game he’s played since he’s been (at Butler),” Hales said of the performance against East Forsyth. “We could’ve tried to go out there and throw it all around, but we couldn’t put our defense out there like that; we needed to sustain drives. Riley understands that and made some great decisions for us.”
For Butler to advance past Mallard Creek and on to the Class 4AA state championship game, it’s likely that Ferguson will have to make a play at some point. Neither Ferguson nor Hales would have it any other way.
“I know I have to be smart with the ball. We just can’t afford any turnovers, and I hate throwing picks,” Ferguson said. “I know what I have to do, but it’s still ‘championship or bust’ for us.”
Hales reminded Ferguson at a recent practice of what they had talked about one day with Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who’d stopped by campus to chat with Ferguson. Ferguson said it’s the words he lives by to this day.
“(Cutcliffe) said that any time a possession ends with a kick, it’s a good thing, whether it’s an extra point or a punt because you didn’t turn the ball over or you scored,” Ferguson said before offering a smile and exhibiting his leadership qualities once more.
“Well,” he said, “if it’s a really deep pass on third down, that’s OK, too.”