Robert Riddle went to Mercer in the summer of 2017 expecting to play four seasons of college football.
Ultimately, he's going to have that opportunity, albeit in an unconventional way and with a different Southern Conference program.
When he graduated from McCallie, Riddle wanted a chance to experience places outside of the area he was from — but four years later, he has decided there's no place like home after recently making the decision to transfer to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound quarterback will have three years of eligibility remaining starting with the upcoming season.
It will be a chance to reunite with former Mercer offensive coordinator Joe Pizzo, who left the program in Macon, Georgia, after the 2018 season and moved to Chattanooga when Rusty Wright became head coach of the Mocs. Riddle dealt with even bigger changes after the 2019 season, when the Mercer staff turned over as Drew Cronic replaced Bobby Lamb as head coach.
Although he has only the equivalent of one season of on-field playing experience — he redshirted in 2017, and season-ending injuries took away the final seven games of 2018 and the final five the following year — Riddle is confident he can recapture the form he had three years ago with the Bears, when he passed for 851 yards and six touchdowns and was named to the All-SoCon freshman team. He followed that with 1,453 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2019 before missing the final five games that season, and he did not play for the Bears this school year.
He'll enter the fall with three seasons of eligibility remaining, having already received a medical redshirt for 2018 and with all NCAA athletes receiving a free year of eligibility in 2020.
But can he regain that form after a season-ending injury, let alone two?
"Those are pretty tough mentally on college athletes, especially because you go from being a Division I college starter, and then all of a sudden, I was on a scooter riding around campus and going to classes," Riddle told the Times Free Press earlier this week. "It can be tough if you don't have a good support system, but for me, the second injury brought me closer to God; I started doing devotionals every day and reading the scripture more often, and that got me closer to my family because they were such a good support system for me."
Riddle said he also gained hope from a documentary on recently retired NFL quarterback Alex Smith, who nearly lost his leg and his life after an injury that occurred while playing for Washington during the 2018 season.
"It's the amount of power that God has to heal us," Riddle said. "With this modern age of medicine, you really have to have a terrible injury to not be able to come back and play, honestly."
He will get an opportunity to join a position group that already features two quarterbacks with college starting experience: sixth-year senior Drayton Arnold and fourth-year junior Cole Copeland, who each has his own interesting story. Arnold started all five games for the Mocs during the 2020-21 season, throwing for 783 yards and three touchdowns, while Copeland came off the bench against Furman and Mercer and threw for 196 yards and a score on 20 passes.
Copeland also started the Mocs' final six games of 2017, just a year after he was wrapping up a standout high school career at Bradley Central.
"It's extremely exciting," Riddle said. "I feel like teams are always better when they have quarterback competition ... because you always have someone there to push you. So if I become the guy, everyone's going to push me to become the best quarterback I can be, but if I don't become the guy, I'm going to push whoever's in front of me to be the best quarterback they can be, so I love quarterback competitions.
"I feel like it just makes the whole team better, so I'm really excited to go in and compete."
Because of his familiarity with Pizzo, Riddle may not have as steep of a curve in learning the playbook as other transfers would probably have. His challenge will be becoming familiar with his teammates while joining a program that showed great promise during an abbreviated 2021 spring season and a roster that appears to have a lot of depth at a number of positions.
Now he's ready to add to that, bringing with him a new outlook on a college career that could ultimately span seven seasons once it's all said and done.
"I talked to Coach Wright and Coach Pizzo, and they just sounded really excited about getting me up to Chattanooga," Riddle said, noting UTC was always his preferred choice once he entered the NCAA transfer portal.
"I'm from Chattanooga, and you don't realize how awesome of a city Chattanooga is until you go away, because when I was coming out of high school, I was like, 'Oh, I've got to get out of Chattanooga for at least a little bit and go see some other parts of the Southeast,' but now I'm ready to get back to Chattanooga, and it just works out perfectly that I get to play the game I love in the city that I was raised in.
"I just can't wait to get started."