Resigned to backup quarterback duty and reassigned to the wide receiving corps for perennial playoff contender Yorktown as a sophomore in 2012, Wilson chose to leave the school for a chance to start at quarterback at crosstown rival Wakefield.
Yorktown players typically didn’t join Wakefield’s athletes on the field; they beat them on the field. But when Wilson decided to trade a Yorktown team coming off an unbeaten regular season and transfer across Arlington County to a team that went 0-10 — all in the name of gaining exposure as a college-ready quarterback — he did so knowing a familiar face and empathy awaited him.
It was Wakefield Coach Wayne Hogwood who lined up as the school’s quarterback from 1998 to 2000 before finding success at Shenandoah University. And it was Hogwood who later left his assistant coaching gig at Yorktown to lead his alma mater in 2013, inheriting a quarterback in Wilson who yearned for a similar college career.
“Who leaves a 10-0 program for an 0-10 team?” Hogwood said with a laugh. “I’m sure Riley caught a lot of flak about that, but the kid wanted to play. It was a little bit of a culture shock for him, but as the kids here saw how he worked coming from a team like Yorktown, they got on board, and it made the transition both easier for him and easier for the team to get back on track.”
Wilson’s rare move has yielded equally rare results for Wakefield this season.
As the 6-foot-4 quarterback has worked to improve his game and standing as a college recruit, he has totaled 433 yards and five touchdowns, propelling the Warriors to the first 4-0 start in school history and putting the prospect of their first winning season since 1983 within reach.
The Warriors visit Hayfield (1-3) on Thursday night in Alexandria.
If not for Wilson’s ability to adapt, he likely still would be at Yorktown. After he split time at quarterback for the junior varsity team as a sophomore, the Patriots’ shortage of skill players led varsity coaches to shift Wilson to receiver and linebacker, leaving him as the backup quarterback.
“I started talking to some college coaches, but there wasn’t much I could tell them because I didn’t have any varsity film yet,” Wilson said. “I still thought I was meant to be a quarterback, and I knew I wanted to play in college. I kind of had to make a decision off my gut.”
His search for opportunity initially took him to private schools O’Connell and Bishop Ireton. But O’Connell already had a quarterback transferring to the school, and Ireton wasn’t the right fit for Wilson, either. Upon hearing that Hogwood, his former assistant coach at Yorktown, had landed the job at Wakefield and knowing that the academic transition between Arlington County schools would be fairly seamless, Wilson came to terms with the reality of playing for his one-time rival.
The honeymoon lasted all of four weeks, then dissolved amid bickering and finger-pointing on the sideline as the Warriors stumbled to the second of seven consecutive losses during their 3-7 campaign last year.
“After that loss to Edison, it brought a lot of stress,” Wilson said of a 49-14 Week 4 thrashing that sent the Warriors into their tailspin. “I started thinking, ‘Did I make a mistake? Did I join a team that doesn’t want to get anything done? Is this how it’s going to be the rest of the season?’ ”
Both the quarterback’s faith and the team’s fortitude were salvaged in the regular season finale, when the Warriors knocked off Mount Vernon behind Wilson’s two touchdown passes.
Over the next few days, Wilson meticulously spliced highlights from his performance onto his Hudl page before sending another blast of e-mails to college football coaches across all three levels of NCAA play.
While other players in the area sifted through hundreds of letters from Football Bowl Subdivision teams, Wilson was forced to play the role of recruiter, toeing the line between being persistent and being a pest.
“Some people say be patient and if you’re good, they’ll find you. But it’s tough because while Riley’s coaches think he’s good, he doesn’t have the luxury of sitting back and waiting,” said Riley’s mother, Beth Ann, who coaches volleyball at Marymount University. “There are hundreds of excellent players in the area, and to just assume he’s going to be plucked from those hundreds of kids, to us, felt like leaving too much up to fate.”
Instead, Wilson scoured the region for possible college destinations, participating in combines at Bucknell, Delaware, Villanova and William and Mary, among others. To prepare himself for competition at the most high-profile position in football, Wilson worked with local trainer Paul Troth, whose students have included former Briar Woods standout Trace McSorley (Penn State) and current Gonzaga quarterback Nick Johns (committed to Virginia).
“I was really impressed by his determination and self-confidence. That’s incredibly important because he doesn’t have the greatest mechanics,” Troth said. “But he has the size, and if you get past the mechanics and look at how he can make plays with his receivers, if somebody takes a chance on him, there’s certainly potential there.”
Though Wilson’s 10-week college tour did not yield any offers, it did help garner steady interest from Bucknell, Richmond, San Diego, Pennsylvania and William and Mary. And as the Warriors continue to make their mark in the area as a Virginia 5A contender, Wilson is cautiously optimistic that he too will find his place among the college football ranks.
“I already know I made the right decision,” Wilson said. “Maybe I could have played college football if I stayed at Yorktown, but I think I would have blended in a little more as a recruit, especially if I wasn’t playing quarterback, which I think is my best position.
“It’s a stressful process that I hope works out. But regardless, I’ve made some great friends and grown by challenging myself.”