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February 14, 2012

In Joel Caleb, Hokies land a top prospect - and a top person

By: Bill Roth

Several weeks ago, Virginia Tech football recruit Joel Caleb was sitting in his high school, deliberating between his three finalists – Ohio State, West Virginia and Virginia Tech – when the school’s principal, Dr. Deborah Marks, walked into the room.

“Joel, just so you know, it’s 8 degrees today in Ohio and 23 in West Virginia, but a sunny 55 today at Virginia Tech,” she told him.

They both laughed.

Weeks later, now that Caleb has signed with the Hokies, they both enjoy telling that story even more.

You should know that Marks, the principal at Clover Hill High School in Midlothian, Va., is an avid, unapologetic, and unabashed Virginia Tech fan.

“You betcha’ I am,” was her firm and quick response when asked to confirm her Hokie fandom.

“I didn’t go to Virginia Tech, but my dad did and he was a member of the ‘Old Guard.’ Several family members went up there, too, so the Hokies have always been my team,” she said.

And she’s proud to tell – or even show – anyone who will listen.

Several years ago, Clover Hill alum Blake DeChristopher, who recently concluded his outstanding career as an offensive lineman at Tech, presented Dr. Marks with one of his Tech football jerseys.

“I’ve worn Blake’s jersey, that big No. 62, every year on Thanksgiving week before the Tech-UVa game,” Marks said with a laugh.

Photo courtesy of Rivals

Can you picture your high school principal patrolling the halls in a Blake DeChristopher (6-foot-5, 311 pounds) jersey? That’s been the scene at Clover Hill in recent years.

And the talk of the high school has been Caleb, one of the country’s most highly touted college football prospects who just completed a tremendous career at Clover Hill, where he played six different positions.

Caleb posted prolific numbers as a quarterback, throwing for 1,313 yards and 20 touchdowns and rushing for 684 yards and eight touchdowns during his junior year. He rushed for 747 yards and 12 touchdowns and threw for 846 yards and seven touchdowns during an injury-shortened senior year. He played defensive back. He was on special teams. He touched the ball as much as 50 times per game. For his career, he amassed nearly 6,000 yards in total offense and accounted for 76 touchdowns.

But it’s as a wide receiver where Caleb opened everyone’s eyes from coast-to-coast, and where he projects at the college level. He was ranked the No. 1 prospect in Virginia by ESPN, No. 2 by The Roanoke Times, and No. 4 by SuperPrep.

There’s never been a doubt about Caleb’s talent. The only question was – where would he play his college ball?

Caleb had dozens of offers, including all the major national powers such as Florida, Florida State, LSU, Georgia and Tennessee. Nick Saban and national champion Alabama offered as well, but wanted Joel as a free safety.

In the end, it came down to those three schools: Ohio State, West Virginia and Virginia Tech.

“I was trying to be cool, and I didn’t want to sway him,” Dr. Marks said. “The other two schools [Ohio State and WVU] were class acts.”

But as signing day neared, Marks offered a subtle hint, providing Caleb with the daily weather forecast at each of his finalists.

“He doesn’t like to play in cold weather,” she joked.

“We became really close. I’m close with all my students,” Marks said. “I went to the All-American game in San Antonio.”

Caleb attended the game, but didn’t play because of a torn meniscus in his knee that required surgery before the end of the regular season. His principal went with him to San Antonio to support one of her favorite students. There are pictures on the wall of Dr. Marks’ office today from that trip.

“We’re close at Clover Hill, like a family,” Dr. Marks said. “I’d be happy for Joel wherever he went, but Coach Cav [Jim Cavanaugh] and Coach Shane [Beamer] did a terrific job of getting to know Joel as a person and showing him that Tech has that family atmosphere, too.”

So how did Caleb end up signing with the Hokies?

Well, to be honest, several years ago, he never envisioned himself wearing Hokie orange and maroon.

“I never really thought about Tech back then,” Caleb said. “I always thought that it would be fun to play at a place like Florida or somewhere like that.

“But then in my sophomore year, I started learning more about it and learning more about the recruiting process. I learned that I had to look at the depth chart and the stability of the coaching staff. I met Davon Morgan [ex-Tech star player from Richmond], and we knew some of the same guys. He told me that Virginia Tech would always do me right. So back in 10th grade, I really started paying attention to that program and the players in the program.”

But that didn’t ensure that he’d play football in Blacksburg.

“I had watched [Tech] play,” he said. “I saw Marcus Vick and those guys, but I wasn’t that big on them way back then. It got better when I went up to visit last February and had the chance to see it all, meet everyone. Experience it.”

Caleb was one of 21 high school prospects who visited Tech during the Hokies’ junior day last February. He heard from the Tech coaches and academic types, saw the Tech basketball team beat then-No. 1 Duke, and had an opportunity to meet some of the players.

By this past December, he was down to his finalists. He visited Ohio State on Dec. 2. His official visit to Blacksburg was on Dec. 9. And his official visit to WVU was in January.

“I had a pretty good feeling what I would do after coming back from all three of my visits,” Caleb said.

But he didn’t tell anyone. Not his mom. Not his coaches. Not even a guy whom he had grown very close to during the recruiting process, the Hokies’ Dyrell Roberts.

A native of Smithfield, Va., Roberts was poised to have a terrific 2011 season for the Hokies as a receiver. He had led the ACC in kickoff return average in 2009 and caught one of the most memorable passes in school history, a last-second game-winning touchdown against Nebraska. His 2010 season was cut short by injury, but he had recovered fully for this past season.

But during the game against Arkansas State in 2011, Roberts broke his arm and was lost for the season – again.

Dyrell played in only three games for the Hokies’ during this past season, but he coincidentally, played a big role in the Tech’s signing of Caleb.

Both are quiet, confident kids. They’re not the flashy, flamboyant type. In fact, they’re quite the opposite. As a result, they bonded.

“I like him. I like him a lot,” Caleb said of Roberts. “I’ve been with a lot of recruits [on his recruiting trips and at the all-star game in Texas] and some of them want the big lights and stuff. We [he and Roberts] talked about that neither of us are big city, bright lights kind of guys.

“Some [recruits at other schools] asked me, ‘Why do you want to play football in the mountains?’ But that’s the way I am. That’s how he is. He’s a humble guy who just makes plays on the field. That’s how I play. We talked about that a lot. Honestly, we’re like brothers now.”

Caleb comes across as a very stoic kid who maintained an even keel throughout the recruiting process.

“Regardless of where he went, he never changed,” Shane Beamer said. “And I told him that. He was very humble, very much so throughout the entire recruiting process. He came up for our junior day event. Cav had already offered him. That was a great day for us. [ESPN]Gameday was here, we beat Duke in basketball, he met some of our guys and we developed a good relationship.

“He and Dyrell hit it off, and that helped. Dyrell hosted him on his [official] visit.”

The first-year Tech assistant had worked very hard to bring Caleb to Blacksburg, visiting Caleb often. The first visit included Shane and Tech receivers coach Kevin Sherman. The second was Frank and Shane Beamer. And the third visit was with Shane going solo.

“It was intense. WVU was there every week,” Shane Beamer said. “Coach [Dana] Holgorsen and three assistants. Ohio State was there the last week, too.”

Which leads us to signing day. There was plenty of drama across the Commonwealth and in football offices in Columbus, Morgantown and Blacksburg in the 24 hours leading up to Caleb’s announcement at Clover Hill.

Where would he play?

He liked Ohio State. The campus. The tradition. He liked Urban Meyer.

Same for WVU. Caleb liked Holgerson a lot and was impressed with WVU’s offense.

He had made up his mind following his trip to Morgantown, but kept quiet for about two weeks. On the Tuesday night before signing day, Caleb called Meyer and Holgorsen and delivered the news. He was going to sign with Virginia Tech the following morning.

“Both coaches were very classy and wished me luck,” Caleb said. “They understood. It was so hard to tell them that I wouldn’t be coming and that I was stayin’ in-state to play for Virginia Tech. Coach Meyer told me that he understood, wished me good luck and told me, ‘You are going to play for a great man in Frank Beamer.’ I’ll always appreciate that.”

Why do players pick a particular school? In this case, there were dozens of reasons.

Cavanaugh had laid the groundwork with Caleb going back to several years. Caleb believed in Morgan, observed the Hokie pride around his high school and saw first-hand DeChristopher’s success. He grew attached to Shane Beamer and liked Sherman, and he connected with Roberts in a big way.

Winning was important, but as usual, personal relationships trumped all and led him to make the decision he did.

The young man turned down LSU, Florida, Alabama and Ohio State because he trusted Morgan, and Cav, and Shane Beamer and his principal, and Roberts and the other guys in Tech’s program. And at the end of the day, it’s usually the people in a program who make a difference.

“Let me tell you something about Joel Caleb,” Dr. Marks continued. “Every child in this school believes in this guy. We have another young child here who is struggling, who is really having a hard time, but he came up to Joel this past week, shook his hand and congratulated him. He opened up, confidently smiled and shook Joel’s hand. Joel made that happen. He did more for us as a school than he knows.

“I pulled him aside last week and showed him the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch in the front lobby. It means a lot for us to share in his success. We’ve never had an All-American here before. He’s an All-American as a player and he’s an All-American as a person, too.”

Over the past few years, Dr. Marks has been exclusively wearing Blake DeChristopher’s No. 62 jersey in her halls at Clover Hill.

That’s about to change.

She’ll be getting a new Virginia Tech No. 15 jersey soon.

“Now I’ll get to wear Joel’s, too,” she said with a chuckle. “Proudly so.”

For updates on Virginia Tech football, follow the Hokies on Twitter (@VT_Football).