After watching Philip Riley in person twice this season, it’s clear the Notre Dame commitment made strides to improve his game. What many people may not know is just how he did it.
Some players are built differently, but that does not just mean physical stature. Riley entered his junior season at Bloomingdale High School with zero offers. By the end of his junior season, the Valrico (Fla.) prospect approached nearly 40 offers. Clearly, he had arrived.
Then again, that’s just from a recruiting perspective. Riley still needed to hone his craft. Even with a sculpted 6-0 frame that packed on 195-pounds, he improved his football acumen by working with multiple trainers this past summer. Footwork drills, agility, quickness, recognition and hand placement were all worked to improve his overall football abilities. This season it paid off.
Fast forward to game one of the regular season, and the underdog Bloomingdale program struggled with traditional power Seffner (Fla.) Armwood. What changed the game would be Riley, albeit in an unusual way for a cornerback.
Late in the game, Riley scooped up a kickoff that fell short of its mark. He could have ducked out of bounds, but Riley did not. Instead, Riley quickly assimilated to running back mode. He made the first defender miss, and darted through an opening and was gone. Riley’s play propelled Bloomingdale to what many believed to be an unlikely win. Fast forward to this past Friday, and Riley is a big part of why Bloomingdale continues to win.
Riley and his teammates were tasked with keeping up with elite Plant City High School five-star wide receiver Mario Williams, an Oklahoma commitment that’s absolutely electric with the ball in his hands. That’s no easy task. While Riley rarely possessed the chance to go one-on-one with Williams, much of that was due to respect.
Williams would line up opposite of Riley for the vast majority of the contest. That’s not just a coincidence, as Plant City coaches would shift Williams prior to the snap several times. While there were a few head to head matchups, no deep shots or contested passes occurred between the two elite talents. Williams did his damage against the other Bloomingdale players. As for Riley and his skills, there were three things that stood out.
First, Riley mentioned before the game that he was down to 192-pounds because he wanted to improve his speed. Make no mistake, Riley is sculpted. He’s built like a college running back. Perhaps most importantly, Riley wanted to improve and he found a way to do it. Self motivation is key for a player to become great; Riley possesses that trait.
Second, Riley is still the most physical cornerback I’ve ever watched. Period. While he did not throw a wide receiver (at least that I saw) during the Plant City contest, he’s done so consistently this season.
Yes, literally grab a wide receiver and toss him in the air. There’s bump and run coverage, and then there’s Riley’s physical dominance with over matched high school wide receivers. Simply put, Riley is a grown man. When necessary, he provides the physical power needed to dominate on the football field. It’s impressive.
Finally, his hand technique improved. During the early portion of the season, Riley would sometimes two-hand jam a wide receiver. That’s not the way you want to do it because it forces a defender to lunge.
While this is not the time for a coaching lesson, using one arm and shifting one’s hips to follow the wide receiver is the way many defensive backs coach bump and run coverage. Riley showed some of that skill set this past Friday. He will need it moving forward as he continues to learn the nuances of one of the hardest positions in sport. Speaking of positions, that’s where Riley’s talents become quite interesting.
Cornerback? Nickel? Safety?
Does Riley play the boundary or does he play to the field, assuming he stays at cornerback for Notre Dame? Many intriguing questions, and there’s one answer I’ve finally come to the conclusion.
All of the above. Riley is as selfless as he is a team player and tireless worker. Anyone that doubts Riley’s physical ability or his desire to improve is foolish. He needs technical work, yes, but he does provide signs that he can play cornerback at the elite college football level.
He's matched up against some of the nation's best high school receivers in the last two seasons, and he's at worst handled himself, and at best won those battles.
Once he further enhances his footwork and begins to further develop hand placement, he can be a big-time cornerback. Then again, Riley possesses the skills to be that jack of all trades nickel or safety that plays over the slot wide receiver or big tight end. Overall, he’s just a versatile defensive back that Notre Dame will be fortunate to have on its roster. Above all else, it’s about Riley’s motivation.
He just wants to win. He’s all about his teammates, and Riley consistently brought up the other Notre Dame commitments as a big reason he wanted to attend the University of Notre Dame during several of our conversations.
Long term, Riley could end up at safety. That’s fine. That plays out assuming Notre Dame brings in other cornerbacks that actually produce. Cornerback depth is far from a sure thing at Notre Dame, as this year’s Notre Dame team showed. Either way, Riley will be a key contributor in the Notre Dame secondary moving forward.
When and where he plays will likely shift, and he’s okay with it, that’s just the way Riley is. A motivated player that just wants to get better and help his team win.
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