LOS ANGELES -- UCLA safety Dietrich Riley has been cleared for non-contact drills and is on track to be at full speed by spring practice, he said Tuesday, nearly a year after injuring his neck in a scary on-field collision.
Riley underwent single-level fusion surgery in April and has been doing light drills for the past few weeks in practice. Tuesday, he did most of the non-contact individual drills with the defensive backs.
"It brought me to tears, I was so happy," Riley said of getting the news he was cleared to participate. "Before the surgery I had doubts in my mind thinking about it. It's a scary surgery thinking about someone going in your neck."
Riley had a procedure similar to the one Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning had, in which two vertebrae were fused together. For Riley's procedure, doctors took a piece of bone from his hip and used it to fuse his neck bones.
Riley said his doctors have told him he is well ahead of schedule in the recovery process.
"The doctor said this was the most successful surgery he's had, especially working with an athlete," he said. "He was saying back in June that it was already looking fully healed, and I just had the surgery in April. He said it was too good to be true, let's just wait a few months and check, but it looked fully healed right after the surgery."
Riley said he feels fine physically, is not limited in movement, and has no pain in either his neck or his hip.
Riley was injured last Oct. 29 against California after he lowered his head and put a hit on running back Isi Sofele. Riley, who was motionless on the field for several minutes, said he momentarily lost feeling in his body before getting carted off and hospitalized. He was in a great deal of pain in the next few days and sought opinions from several doctors over the next few months before deciding to have surgery.
"My body is responding well to the surgery," he said. "The whole fusion just allowed my body to start from scratch and refresh."
It will be difficult to curb the urge to go out and practice at full speed and full contact, Riley said, but just being on the field with his teammates is good enough for him even if he isn't in full pads. UCLA is 5-2 overall and 2-2 in the Pac-12 South heading into its Oct. 27 game at Arizona State.
"It feels great to just be back out here and feel like I'm part of the team," he said. "It's going to take a lot of patience to wait until spring and sit back and watch the team and be supportive. But I'm in the meetings and now I'm on the field, so just being a part of the team is enough for me for now."