Running receiving routes this week during practice for the Touchstone Energy Cooperatives Bowl North vs. South game, Nation Ford’s Riley Hilton knows when he turns and sticks his hands out the ball will be there.
That’s because Byrnes quarterback Shuler Bentley is firing the footballs intended for Hilton’s gloves this week.
The pair’s relationship is a product of their fathers, who were roommates at Presbyterian College 1989-90. Riley’s father, Richard, was a split end on the football team at Presbyterian before playing basketball his final year of school. Shuler’s father, Byrnes coach Bobby Bentley, was a quarterback who switched to free safety before undertaking a successful coaching career.
“He’s been a lifelong friend,” Richard Hilton said. “We’ve kept our friendship throughout the whole time he started coaching. Our families have been close during tough times and good times.”
Chemistry is hard to develop during one week of preparation for an all-star game where most players’ agendas tend to start with themselves. But Hilton and Bentley’s chemistry was fostered during shared family trips to the beach, and more recently this past summer at Bobby Bentley’s football camps where Shuler was throwing and Riley was catching.
“Riley and Shuler have grown up together,” Richard Hilton said. “They were in diapers together running around. They’ve known each other, and it’s actually pretty fun now that they’re teenagers. They text each other and keep up with what’s going on. They have a good relationship.”
Both families are hoping that connection can benefit Hilton. Bentley is one of the fortunate few down in Myrtle Beach this week who has his future largely sewn up. He was recently named the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year for the second season running, after tossing 71 touchdown passes this season, including a state record nine in a win over Woodruff. Despite late interest from larger schools, the prolific Byrnes quarterback, who stands right around 6 feet tall, has remained steadfast in his commitment to Old Dominion.
“If he had those extra two inches he’d be way up on a lot of people’s radars,” Hilton said, “but he’s really good. He knows his stuff. It’s unbelievable how much he knows at this time. You can tell he’s been coached well and he can put balls certain places. All we have to do is throw our hands out and catch it. He puts it wherever it’s supposed to be.”
Hilton, and many of the other 86 players involved in Saturday’s North-South affair, still have wide-open futures. The 6-foot-3 tight end has solid offers from Tusculum (Tenn.) and Newberry College, but he’s also hearing from a litany of different schools, ranging from the Air Force Academy to Presbyterian, Charleston Southern, and Clemson. From full rides to walk-on possibilities, Hilton has a full spectrum of options.
“A lot of coaches have been rolling into the school, talking to me and visiting,” said Hilton, who has a 4.2 GPA and an interest in dentistry. “I went up to a couple of games at different schools this year. I’m looking at whatever else rolls in. I’m talking to a bunch of coaches that like what they see; they’re just waiting to see if spots open up or different things have to happen for me to be able to come in with a scholarship.”
Those options spring from a productive four years in high school football, especially the 2013 season. Hilton was Nation Ford’s leading pass-catcher with 86 grabs for 976 yards and 10 touchdowns, while also playing a high number of snaps each game at linebacker, and punting. His role will be more narrowly focused this week in Myrtle Beach. He’ll line up at tight end, showing he can play with his hand on the ground, a big shift from his role with the Falcons where he was almost always standing at the snap of the ball. Hilton will also long-snap on special teams.
“I’m doing stuff I did, and I’m doing stuff I haven’t done, so it’s really helping me improve and work on different parts of my game,” Hilton said. “Everybody knows I can catch but it’s all about doing different stuff that shows you’re versatile, that makes them want you even more.”
Shuler likes what he’s seen from his pal in their first, and possibly last, week of competitive football together.
“He’s had a good week of practice so far and hopefully this week will be able to boost his stock on the recruiting boards,” Bentley said on Thursday. “He’s got great hands and a big body and he’s only gonna get bigger. He’s got a lot of upside.”
East Carolina and Wingate are two other schools that Hilton has heard from, indicative of the disparity in size of the schools keeping tabs on him. Hilton is not being choosy; his ears are open to anyone talking. He’s simply looking for “somewhere to help me move on to the next level of my life, in whatever that may be.”
A successful showing by the North squad would help the cause. Hilton said he likes the amount of athletes on the North squad, especially the six other players from the Herald area – Indian Land’s Manny McCord, South Pointe Stallions Anthony Johnson and Josh Massey, Northwestern Trojans Jaquavious Mackey and Raydonn McCloud and York’s Ryan Moore – who all get one more shot in the shop window.
“I’m very honored to be down here, especially with all these guys,” Hilton said. “It’s really awesome to be able to play one more game and show people I have talent and I want to play at the next level.”
Richard Hilton and Bobby Bentley probably never discussed a future where their sons would play football together. But it’s worked out that way this week, a happenstance for which Richard Hilton is thankful.
“Me and Bobby were talking about it the other day. The years we spent in college, who would’ve thought our kids were playing together?” Richard Hilton said. “We’re extremely excited for both of them.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T