Justin Fuente may have been the talk of the college football world when he arrived at Virginia Tech, but he started things off a bit behind the eight ball with Dylan Rivers.
The Hokies had long been in pursuit of the highly rated linebacker from Stephens City, Va.'s Sherando HS, hosting him for a bevy of visits to Blacksburg back when Frank Beamer was still running the show. In particular, Bud Foster put on the full court press with Rivers, yet Beamer's departure still left the talented LB unsure of how he might fit in Blacksburg.
"With Coach Beamer leaving, I committed to Penn State, and we kind of parted ways a little bit," Rivers told The Key Play. "But Coach Fuente really took me under his wing."
Indeed, Bill Hall, Rivers' head coach at Sherando, said he noticed that "things got a little fuzzy" between his star pupil and Virginia Tech immediately after Beamer's retirement, leading to his November 2015 commitment to the Nittany Lions. Nevertheless, he gives the Hokies (and Fuente in particular) immense credit for never giving up on Rivers, and he believes that tenacity helped lead Rivers back to Tech in the end.
"The first open recruiting period last year, the very first day they were allowed to get out into schools, Coach Fuente and Coach Foster came here," Hall said. "And I think Coach Fuente did a good job in terms of asking to build a relationship with Dylan. At the end of the day, Dylan could make a decision, but he wanted to just have an opportunity to have a chance to get to know him, for Dylan to get to know what Coach Fuente and the program was going to be about, and Dylan was open to that."
Yet Hall cautions that Rivers' decision to flip to the Hokies just a week and half before signing day was hardly some "snap decision," but rather "a culmination of a lot of things."
At first, Hall pushed Rivers to merely develop a "backup plan," and the Hokies positioned themselves well to earn that sort of consideration.
"That was kind of my advice to Dylan, 'Make sure you have a backup plan so that if something were to happen at Penn State, if there would be a reason that you wouldn't go there, what would be your backup plan?'" Hall said. "It was initially something that wasn't very comfortable for him, but if something were to happen in the world of college football the way it does, the staff is let go or moves onto another place, you don't want to be caught without other options. And so Tech was his other option."
From afar, the Hokies gave Rivers plenty to think about. Even as the Nittany Lions assembled their own breakout season, Rivers couldn't help but notice how Fuente managed to turn around the Hokies.
"I haven't been around football much, I didn't even like football growing up, I just started liking it when I got good at it," Rivers said. "So I didn't really understand the difference between a winning season and a losing season, good coach or bad coach, what it takes to perform and transform a team to become a 10-4 team, 10-5 team, a bowl-type team in the first year. I heard he did that at Memphis, and then he came (to Tech) and he said he was going to do it and he did it. So that was pretty impressive if you ask me."
And all the while, Fuente made an effort to reach out to Rivers and his family on a regular basis.
"He was very, very genuine with my mother, he was kind and genuine with me and he was just the right fit for me," Rivers said.
But Rivers says Foster's decision to stay in Blacksburg was a huge part of why he was even willing to hear Fuente out in the first place.
"We regained that relationship and it was big to me that he was loyal to his word," Rivers said. "He's always been honest with me, and I really appreciated that. That was one of the big reasons I committed, his honesty."
Hall certainly noticed that the two developed some pretty strong bonds through the process, even after the "uncertainty during the transition scared Dylan a little bit."
"Those two have a special relationship in terms of the trust they've built up in each other and being consistent with each other, and I think that's been built over time," Hall said. "I think Dylan appreciates the type of man he is and the type of character he possesses and trust he puts in him moving forward."
Based on all those factors, Rivers ultimately decided to take an official visit to Blacksburg in early December and give the Hokies one last shot to woo him in person.
"It was nice to sit down and eat with them, talk to them, not just about football but about life, what goes on after football," Rivers said. "Just have those conversations you need to have in order to commit to a big university like that."
With signing day approaching, Rivers felt increasingly conflicted. James Franklin certainly helped make Penn State an attractive option, but Rivers found himself compelled to stay in his home state.
"I just had to step back," Rivers said. "Coach Franklin is a great man, he treated me really well throughout the process, but I had to step back and think about what I wanted. Penn State is a tremendous school for football, the tradition is great there, but it just wasn't the right fit for me. It's a great school and I encourage all recruits to go there and give them a chance, but it just wasn't for me. When I step on Virginia Tech's campus, it feels like home. I know the surroundings, I've been there a lot, I like being there, it's in my home state, and that was a big deal to me.
Rivers took his official visit to Happy Valley on Jan. 20, and by then, he felt he knew what he had to do. He told Penn State's coaches about his plans to de-commit, and announced his flip on Jan. 22.
"It was really difficult, and a kid with his type of character, he didn't take that lightly that he'd already committed to another place," Hall said. "But that backup plan I think, in the end, became more appealing for him."
Based on what he's seen from the pairing of Fuente and Foster in the early going, Hall felt completely comfortable in Rivers making that call.
"One of the things I always look at is the stability in the program," Hall said. "There's a lot of stability with Coach Fuente now there and Coach Foster continuing on his tradition, but also believing in what Coach Fuente's doing, and the marriage of those two, and the strength of that. Obviously that's very appealing, and you'd like for your players when they go away to be with someone throughout their entire time. Someone who will not only nourish their football and education experience, but then as people, changing from kids into men, so obviously there's a lot of stability there and Dylan believes in that."
Now, Rivers is busy plotting out what his future could look like in Blacksburg. Chiefly, the Hokies told him that they view him as their heir apparent to Tremaine Edmunds, and he looks forward to following in his footsteps.
"They want me to come in and learn from him, get on the field a little bit so I'm ready to play my sophomore year," Rivers said. "Obviously, I'm going to have to work for that, and I'm going to have to reach some goals in order to overcome what I have so far and get on the field. Obviously that's the set plan, so I don't know what will happen, but that's the goal."
Hall thinks he can thrive in that sort of role, given his immense athleticism.
"He can play inside the box or outside the box, and I think that's the nice thing about Coach Foster, with his expertise, he sees what strengths Dylan has and he can use those to the team's advantage," Hall said. "Dylan brings a lot of things off the edge, but he also has a lot of experience inside the box. That'll be up to Coach Foster and those guys, but I think they see him as being both inside and outside."
But even with that high praise and his lofty star ratings, Rivers doesn't plan to simply waltz into Blacksburg unprepared.
"I've been working, trying to get conditioned so I can run with those guys when I get there," Rivers said. "I know I probably won't be able to, but getting on campus and getting conditioned and getting ready to go for summer camp, that's the biggest deal right now."