On the verge of completing his sophomore year at Notre Dame, Joel Deutsch’s peculiar spring semester had just become stranger.
A high school student had direct-messaged Deutsch a couple weeks ago on Instagram, inquiring about his college experience. Why a stranger would choose Deutsch, an aerospace engineering major, confused him. How a stranger found Deutsch’s profile bewildered him.
Deutsch had enough to worry about after the coronavirus pandemic forced Notre Dame into virtual education. But when he scoured through Philip Riley’s Instagram page, Deutsch discovered his identity as a four-star cornerback from Valrico (Fla.) Bloomingdale High.
Studying for final exams could wait.
“I was like, ‘What are the odds of this happening?’ I sent it to all my friends,” Deutsch said. “They were like, ‘Come on, Joel. Reel him in. We really need this guy.’ The pressure was on.”
With the help of his friends, Deutsch researched Riley’s background and concocted a plan for how to recruit him. They understood the importance behind the Irish landing the No. 20 cornerback nationally in the 2021 football recruiting class, per 247Sports.
From Naperville, Ill., Deutsch said he considers himself a lifelong Notre Dame fan and attended football games throughout childhood.
“To have an opportunity to talk with a prospective player and convince him why the greatest place on Earth is the greatest place on Earth,” Deutsch said, “it’s a dream come true.”
At the time, a handful of recruiting analysts had projected Riley to Virginia Tech. Riley was considering Virginia Tech and Notre Dame as his top schools, but he needed more information on the latter.
Having never visited South Bend, Riley took an unprecedented approach to better understand Notre Dame’s campus life. He perceived ND’s official Instagram page as a gateway to untapped information. Because the account is followed by approximately 150,000 people, Riley knew he could track down students with a specific searching tactic.
So Riley clicked the “followers” section, typed a couple keywords and identified multiple students to contact.
“I’d be like, ‘What’s up bro?’ I introduced myself first,” Riley said. “I wanted to get to know them a little bit, to know that I’m getting it from a credible source. Then I would start going into the questions.”
In his exchange with Riley, Deutsch said he looked to be candid and not sugarcoat his answers. Riley contacted students for that reason. He wanted the raw, honest opinions that he may not necessarily obtain from a virtual visit or conversations with players and coaches.
Athletes sharing dorms with students made Riley curious about how football players were treated on campus. He also wondered about Notre Dame’s culture, and life beyond football.
“It was definitely something that football players and coaches there couldn’t tell you,” Riley said. “How they live their life daily at Notre Dame, that type of perspective. Coaches and players who play football are not always going to have that perspective on how everyday life is at Notre Dame.
“To see what regular students do there and how they interact with their football players in the community was definitely unique.”
Other factors played a role in Riley verbally committing to Notre Dame the following week. When Deutsch heard the news, he couldn’t help but feel partly responsible.
“I was just smiling and laughing,” said Deutsch about his reaction to the May 5 announcement. “How does this even happen? For me, it was more about having an experience. When I’m old, I’ll have a cool experience to tell. There was this Notre Dame recruit who talked with me, and I helped convince him to come to Notre Dame.”
Four weeks ago, Riley decided he wanted to verbally pledge to Virginia Tech and publicly hinted at an upcoming announcement.
Offensive tackle Blake Fisher, dubbed by some of his counterparts as Notre Dame’s unofficial recruiting coordinator, felt Riley trending toward Tech. Fisher said he talked with multiple recruiting analysts who were confident the Hokies would secure Riley’s commitment.
The Irish offered Riley a scholarship on March 25, so the oft-involved Fisher hadn’t communicated much with Riley by that point.
“But I prayed about it,” Riley said, “talked with my family about it, did my research and I decided to back off for a minute, sit back and really think about the situation.”
Once a few days passed, Fisher and Co. saw an opportunity. Head coach Brian Kelly, defensive coordinator Clark Lea, cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and Fisher increased their communication with Riley.
Feeling like a priority interested Riley. Then he started talking about taking a visit in June. Then he began to lean toward Notre Dame over Virginia Tech and the other five schools that made his top seven list: Penn State, Texas, Minnesota, Washington and Mississippi State.
In his ensuing conversations with Riley, Fisher detected his burgeoning interest and capitalized.
“Academics are really important for him,” Fisher said. “Whenever a guy tells you academics are important, that’s when you know they are serious. When you don’t have to bring it up, that’s when that guy is really interested in academics.
“Like all the other guys, Philip really fits in with us. He vibes with us. He’s just a dude like us. There wasn’t too much having to get used to with Philip.”
Before Fisher forges relationships with fellow recruits, he enjoys watching their film and media interviews to understand who he’s approaching. In Riley, Fisher identified the obvious: he shines at a position the Irish covet.
Mickens inherited a position group from predecessor Todd Lyght laden with inexperience. Graduate senior Shaun Crawford and junior TaRiq Bracy were Notre Dame’s only two corners with meaningful experience until NC State grad transfer Nick McCloud verbally committed on Monday.
Lyght helped sign only four cornerbacks in five recruiting classes who were ranked in the top 20 at their position nationally by either Rivals or 247Sports: Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr. in 2016, Houston Griffith (now a safety) in 2018 and Isaiah Rutherford in 2019. Not signing a cornerback in the 2017 class after losing verbal pledges from Paulson Adebo (Stanford) and Elijah Hicks (California) left the Irish with a barren group following last season.
Bloomingdale head coach Jacob Coulson projects Riley as a versatile defensive back who could play any position in the secondary.
“He’s really good at press-man (coverage) and getting up there and being physical,” Coulson said. “He’s really good at recognizing routes and being able to trust his instincts. His instincts are really good.”
The 6-foot, 190-pound Riley shined last season against reputable competition in Class 7A, Florida’s second-highest high school division. He held his own against two four-star receivers: 2021 Alabama commit Agiye Hall and 2022 recruit Greg Gaines. Riley recorded 28 tackles and an interception in 12 games as a junior.
“He shows no mercy,” Fisher said. “Nothing against Agiye, but Philip locked him down. I expect nothing less from Philip, because that’s the type of player he is. He’s got that dog mentality, and I love that. He’s not backing down from any challenge. People probably thought he was the underdog in that matchup, but Philip went out there and handled his business and then he went on about things.”
Quarterback Tyler Buchner and defensive tackle Gabriel Rubio are the other 2021 Irish commits who joined Fisher’s effort. With the help of Rubio, Riley created his own virtual visit before Notre Dame provided him with its version of the individualized experience.
Speaking with Notre Dame’s coaches, commits and incoming freshman wide receiver Jordan Johnson emboldened Riley to take charge. Riley’s conversations with students like Deutsch, and watching several Notre Dame-related videos on YouTube confirmed his second-guessing of his Virginia Tech lean.
“When they started pushing for me, it definitely swayed my decision to their favor,” Riley said of ND. “It really opened my eyes. Everything they said was true. No fluff. It’s a great combination of the community they have, the tradition they’ve built, academics, football and a great coaching staff. So I felt like it was definitely a perfect fit for me.”
Home away from home
Moving approximately 3,000 miles away during high school made Riley’s decision of choosing a college he hadn’t visited easier.
Prompted by his stepfather’s retirement from the military, Riley and his family relocated to Florida from the Tacoma, Wash., area. Coulson welcomed Riley to his football program after he completed his sophomore season.
Coulson said he hadn’t heard of Riley, who held zero Division I offers at that time.
“As a sophomore, he obviously wasn’t as big,” Coulson said. “But you could tell he had the potential. Then you watch him run and some of the stuff that he did. Then you watch his work ethic in the weight room. Spring ball was pretty big for him last year. He had a really good spring.”
Southern Miss extended Riley’s first reported Division I offer in January of 2019. Maryland became Riley’s first reported Power Five offer a year later. His strong junior season convinced Florida State, Penn State, Miami and others to join the mix this spring.
“He went out there and didn’t bat an eye about anything we asked him to do,” Coulson said. “We felt really good about how he performed in the offseason. That translated to when he played football as a junior.”
From unknown to Notre Dame priority, Riley thought of his Florida experience as his recruitment concluded. Facing stout competition and having family in Florida made the unknown that awaited a seamless transition.
As Riley prepares before enrolling at Notre Dame a semester early in January, now he’s certain the uncertain won’t be too daunting.
“You don’t really commit to a school for the campus,” Riley said. “You commit for the people, football and academics.”