As a ballyhooed freshman at St. Francis High, Dietrich Riley came to the Golden Knights with his share of hype and made his share of noise late in his first varsity campaign.

The Pasadena native entered UCLA in much the same way and, as his freshman season as a Bruin progressed, so too did Riley's playing time and contributions.

"Last half [of the season], he put on a show," says UCLA redshirt junior Aaron Hester, a cornerback out of Dominguez High. "You could tell he had the physical attributes to shine."

Whether on defense or offense, Riley truly began to take off during his sophomore campaign at St. Francis, when, upon the conclusion of the season, he was voted the All-Area Football Player of the Year for the first of on an unprecedented three times.

And as Riley's sophomore college campaign and the 2011 Bruins' season looms ahead, there are many that believe the talented strong safety will once again shine as a sophomore.

"He's got Troy Polamalu-type skill in terms of making plays," says UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel, paying Riley a large compliment in comparing him to the Pittsburgh Steelers' four-time All-Pro safety. "I think it's just a matter of time before he starts to show that."

Neuheisel and the Bruins enter the upcoming season — one that begins at Houston on Sept. 3 — on the heels of a disappointing 4-8 campaign last year and in dire need of steering the program in the right direction. With Riley entering fall camp as the starting strong safety on the depth chart, many believe he will play a vital role in a turnaround if it is to be had.

"Back there, a lot of times you're looking for guys who can make a difference, can change a game," UCLA secondary coach Tim Hundley says. "And Dietrich's a difference-maker."

In the fall of 2006, a 14-year-old freshman Riley made his varsity football debut for St. Francis against Alemany and promptly caught three passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns. In just three games at the varsity level, he would become an All-Mission League player.

"It's so rare for a freshman to do that," St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds says. "Right there, we knew he was something special."

Something special came in the form of numerous Mission League, All-Area, All-CIF and All-American accolades. Playing everywhere from safety and linebacker to running back and receiver, he totaled more than 150 tackles, 30 total touchdowns, 2,700 yards rushing and nearly 1,000 yards receiving in his career. Along with the honors and statistics came plenty of recruiting suitors, with Riley eventually settling on UCLA to play under Neuheisel.

"Dietrich, to me, is the consummate football player," Neuheisel says. "He loves the game, he loves everything about it."

As a freshman at UCLA, Riley played in every game but the Bruins' first of the season. He tallied 21 tackles, mostly on special teams, but gained reps in the secondary as his rookie campaign carried on. His biggest highlight likely came on Nov. 6, 2010, at the Rose Bowl against Oregon State. Riley followed a sweep brilliantly and laid a bone-jarring tackle on Beavers running back Jacquizz Rodgers that sent Rodgers' helmet flying and became an instant highlight-reel hit.

"It's an unbelievable accomplishment to step in and play as a freshman at a Division I program," says Bonds, who played quarterback at UCLA during his college days.

Still, for some outsiders, Riley's freshman season out of the starting lineup was reason enough to doubt whether or not he had made the right decision to be a rostered player.

"It's tough to come in and start as a freshman when you have an All-American back there like Rahim Moore and another great returning starter like Tony Dye," Riley says. "I definitely got a lot of experience. A lot of people ask me do I wish I would've redshirted [last season]. I think by playing, I got so much experience."

Unbeknownst to many, as well, was that Riley was nursing injuries during his freshman year that included hip and hamstring issues along with a gluteus injury.

"We just gotta get him 100% healthy," Neuheisel says. "I think it's going to be magic when he starts going."

For the most part, though, Riley says he's healthy and ready to go. That was hardly the case last season, though he soldiered through it.

"I just played through it," Riley says. "I would just go through the pain; I was definitely only like 75%.