Dylan Rivers' role heading into the 2019 season might be different than it was last fall, but the Virginia Tech junior linebacker's mentality remains the same.
"I'm a team-first guy," said the 2017 Sherando graduate in a phone interview on Thursday. "Whatever I have to do to help the team, I'll do."
Rivers started the first seven games last year at the outside Backer position in Virginia Tech's 4-2-5 defense before suffering a sprained ankle that altered his season dramatically. He missed three of the Hokies' next four games, and he was relegated to a reserve role in the three games he did play in after suffering his injury.
In 2019, Rivers is ready to help his team in multiple ways by studying to become an effective Mike middle linebacker for the Hokies after having not worked out at that position at all his first two years. Rivers enters today's season opener at 4 p.m. at Boston College as the co-No. 2 Mike linebacker on Virginia Tech's depth chart.
Rivers might not enter the year as a starter, but if his role increases the Hokies can take comfort in knowing that he's a proven performer with experience.
At this time last year, Rivers did not have game experience on defense. His contributions came on special teams in 2017, and he made three tackles in seven games.
But the Backer spot was there for the taking after the departure of two-year starter Tremaine Edmunds, who was selected in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Rivers wound up being the player who did the best job of seizing the opportunity and earned the starting position out of preseason camp.
"At that time, it was my time to step up," Rivers said."[As a Backer], I had to be in the right spot. You have that at all the positions, but especially mine. I had to be in the right gap at all times depending on what defense we were in."
Rivers' favorite memory from last year was the season opener against Florida State.
A Virginia Tech defense that had to replace seven starters had what turned out to be its best performance, allowing a season-low total for points in a 24-3 win in Tallahassee, Fla. Virginia Tech forced five turnovers and held the Seminoles to zero or negative yards on 35 of 63 plays. Rivers recorded seven tackles (five solo) against Florida State.
"That was a lot of fun," Rivers said. "Emotions were pretty high before that first game. I was pretty nervous, but it was awesome. It did give me a confidence boost after that game to see that I could play at this level."
Rivers recorded a season-high nine tackles and added half a sack in a 49-35 loss to Old Dominion on Sept. 22, then had a strong performance with seven tackles and two quarterback hurries in a 31-14 win over No. 22 Duke on Sept. 29 to help Virginia Tech bounce back from the upset loss to the Monarchs.
Rivers recorded a total of seven tackles in the next two games against Notre Dame and North Carolina, recording his first career solo sack against the Tar Heels.
"After the first two games, things started to come along," said Rivers, who had 31 tackles through six games. "I wasn't thinking anymore. I knew what to do and was playing [instinctive] football."
But on Oct. 25, Rivers' season took a turn for the worse against Georgia Tech. On Virginia Tech's first defensive series, Rivers said he was cut low by a blocker, and his cleats got caught in the grass while his legs kept moving.
Rivers had to depart the game with a sprained ankle, and he was never quite the same the rest of the season, recording only four tackles.
He missed the following two games against Boston College and Pitt. He returned as a backup to Dax Hollifield against Miami on Nov. 17 (Hollifield started the last six games of the year). But he was only able to participate in two plays (he made one tackle) before he had to depart. Aggravating his injury in the Miami game forced him to miss the following week's game against Virginia.
"I messed up my ankle pretty good," Rivers said.
Rivers made one tackle against Marshall on Dec. 1 in a 41-20 win that qualified Virginia Tech for a bowl game for the 26th consecutive year, the longest streak in the nation.
Rivers had 30 days to prepare for the Military Bowl against Cincinnati at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorlal Stadium in Annapolis, Md. Rivers said he kept his foot in a walking boot constantly, He also rehabbed his ankle with massages and put it in cold and hot tubs to help get himself ready.
The work paid off. Rivers still had pain in his ankle in the Military Bowl but he felt his ankle was about 75 percent healthy. He made two tackles and had his first career interception, which he returned 18 yards in Virginia Tech's 35-31 loss.
In the fourth quarter, Bearcats backup quarterback Hayden Moore tried to connect with Josiah DeGuara on a hitch pattern 10 yards downfield to the left. But he didn't see Rivers, who was stationed five yards downfield and shifted to his right to make the interception.
"He was telegraphing some of his passes. I knew they were running that little hitch route, and I just jumped it," said Rivers, who didn't feel 100 percent until about a month after the Military Bowl.
In the offseason, Rivers worked as hard as he could in all areas to put himself in the best possible position to make an impact this season.
In May, he was graded to be Virginia Tech's eighth-best performer in its Hard Hat offseason strength and conditioning program. (Those in the top 10 receive a shirt in addition to getting a hard hat. Forty-four players in total were given hard hats.) Hard Hats are awarded to players based on meeting or exceeding physical performance and testing goals as well as their attitude, enthusiasm and leadership. Over the past year, Rivers increased his hang clean from 275 pounds to 315, his squat from 455 to 505, and his bench press from 295 to 330.
Rivers said the development of some of his younger teammates prompted Virginia Tech to make Rivers more versatile by working him out at Mike linebacker this spring.
"It's a little bit different, but not too much," Rivers said. "Obviously the Mike is the quarterback of the defense. You've got to make all the calls, and you've got to be loud. Especially at [Virginia Tech's] Lane [Stadium]. It's crazy there, especially when our defense is on the field. You've got to make sure everybody hears you, you've got to make sure the D-linemen are lined up in right position."
Rivers is the team's co-No. 2 Mike along with sophomore Keshon Artis. Junior Rayshard Ashby is starting at the position for the second year after tying for third in the ACC with 105 tackles last year.
Virginia Tech hopes its defense helps put the team in a better position to win more games after going 6-7. Virginia Tech ranked 10th in the 14-team ACC in scoring defense (31 points per game) and 11th in total defense (438.6 yards per game), unusual numbers for a school that traditionally ranks among the best in the nation. In 2017, the Hokies were fourth nationally in scoring defense (14.8) and 14th in total defense (319.7 yards per game).
"We have a lot more depth than we've had the past couple of years, and a lot of more experience than last year," Rivers said. "Not using it as an excuse, but we were young last year, and I think our experience this year is really going to benefit us, especially as the season goes along."
In addition to being motivated to improve on last year's performance, Virginia Tech's defenders will also be determined to make this year special because this will be 33-year assistant coach Bud Foster's last year as defensive coordinator.
Foster has helped the defense finish rank among the nation's top five in scoring defense seven times. Since 1996 — Foster's first year as the team's sole defensive coordinator — Virginia Tech leads all Division I Football Bowl Subdivision programs in sacks (856), sack yardage (5,839) and interceptions (380).
"Coach Foster means the world to us," Rivers said. "He's a great coach, but he's an even better person. You've got to send him out right."
Rivers can't wait to play a role in that.
"I'm ready to help the team as much as I can this year," he said. "I'm ready to get after it."
Division I Depth Charts
Junior PK Kier (Millbrook graduate) is one of three players who are listed as Virginia's top speed back heading into today's season opener at Pittsburgh (7:30 p.m.). Kier rushed 26 times for 80 yards (3.1 average) last season.
Two local players could see time when the Virginia Military Institute plays at Marshall at 6:30 p.m. today. The visiting Keydets feature redshirt freshman Jacob Peace (Clarke County) as a backup right guard. Marshall junior Nazeeh Johnson (Millbrook) returns as a starting free safety after recording 59 tackles and one interception last year. Recent Sherando graduate and linebacker JoJo Doleman is also on the Herd but he will be redshirted this year.
Charlotte opened play on Thursday night against Gardner-Webb and won 49-28. Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Bryan Wallace (Clarke County) participated in the game.
Richmond opened its season on Thursday with a 38-19 win over Jacksonville. For the Spiders, redshirt freshman wide receiver Isaac Brown (Millbrook) started and had five catches for 51 yards, including a 25-yard catch to set up a field goal. He led the team in receiving. Redshirt freshman Aaron Banks (Sherando) is a reserve free safety who made five tackles (two solo), including one for loss. True freshman wide receiver Savon Smith (Millbrook) also played in the game.
Sophomore wide receiver Elijah Filbert (James Wood) was not listed as a participant in Wagner's 24-21 loss to Connecticut on Thursday.
Noah Robinson and Delaware opened on Thursday with a 31-13 win over Delaware State. The true freshman running back was not listed as a participant.
Junior Justin Dulaney (Clarke County) is returning as William & Mary's starting long snapper after starting eight games there last year. The Tribe host Lafayette at 6 p.m. today.
Howard and sophomore offensive lineman Bobby Teahan (Handley) are in action today at noon at Maryland. The Bison have not released a depth chart yet. Teahan played in nine games last year.
James Madison plays at West Virginia at 2 p.m. today. Dukes true freshman wide receiver Kevin Curry (Handley) is not on the depth chart.
Harvard and senior defensive lineman Brogan McPartland (Sherando) do not open their season until Sept. 21 at San Diego. McPartland had 19 tackles, a team-high four sacks, and eight tackles for loss while playing in all 10 games last year.