Riggs focused on strong finish

COMPILED BY TOM NOIE
ND Insider

Fall is closing fast, which means it’s again time for Cody Riggs to turn all focus toward football, something he’s done every year around this time since he started playing the sport at age 5.

Yet for the first time in his life, Riggs will experience a football fall outside his home state of Florida. And for the first time since 2009, Riggs will play college football someplace other than at the state’s school.

Following four years at the University of Florida, where he graduated in May with a degree in Family, Youth and Community Service, Riggs loaded up a U-Haul, left Gainesville in the rear-view mirror and headed 300 miles home to Fort Lauderdale.

There, he immediately went to work on a new football chapter in his life, one that will unfold 1,300 miles away in Northern Indiana.

Last winter, Riggs committed to spend his final year of college eligibility at Notre Dame and thus became only the second player to immediately be eligible for Notre Dame as a fifth-year transfer student, but the first to be on scholarship (Former Wake Forest punter Alex Wulfeck walked on as the first).

The 5-foot-9, 190-pound defensive back will offer needed secondary depth and experience for 2014, though being Irish never was part of the plan.

“I wanted to do my fifth year at Florida,” Riggs said. “I really didn’t want to leave. It would take a lot for me to leave. It wasn’t something that I was planning.”

Riggs didn’t even ponder a fifth year somewhere else until long after he appeared in 12 games with 51 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks at safety in 2013. As a grad school transfer, Riggs doesn’t have to sit out at ND under normal NCAA transfer regulations after missing all but two games in 2012 because of injury, and then graduating within four years.

But when one of his former Florida roommates and teammates — Tyler Murphy — enrolled at Boston College and was immediately eligible for his fifth year (he won the Eagles’ starting quarterback job for 2014) and started talking about fresh starts and new opportunities to Riggs, Riggs started thinking hard about his own future.

The son of three-time Pro Bowl running back Gerald Riggs harbors NFL dreams. But he also deeply values education, and a master’s degree to go with his undergraduate degree from Florida would set him up for life long after football.

Maybe it was time for a new challenge far from his football comfort zone.

“Football is a major priority for me,” Riggs said. “At the same time, I had to take a step back and think about my future.”

Riggs didn’t exactly stumble upon Notre Dame. Coming out of St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.) High School, he was recruited by current Irish assistant Tony Alford for former coach Charlie Weis. Riggs’ uncle, Bobby Brown, was a standout wide receiver at Notre Dame under Lou Holtz and Bob Davie. Riggs remembers visiting campus on fall Saturdays and even sleeping in the dorms when Brown was a student.

The more Riggs investigated a possible transfer, graduate school and the chance to be a key piece to the Irish defensive puzzle, the more convinced he became that South Bend was a definite destination.

He arrived for good in late-May, moved into an off-campus apartment and went to work getting to know the Irish playbook, coaches and teammates.

“It’s odd to think I’m not going back to Florida,” he said. “In some ways, I’m glad. I’m excited about a new opportunity. I thought it would be best for me elsewhere and see something else.”

Riggs played in 40 career games and made 26 starts for the Gators. He had 107 tackles with nine tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception. But he knows there’s still plenty of work to be done and plays to be made.

“I want to get a few more interceptions,” he said. “I don’t have too many of those. I need to get some turnovers and make some more game-changing plays.

“I have to prove I’m a really good football player.”

Where Riggs fits this fall remains an unknown, but most likely he’ll end up at cornerback and could be a starter opposite third-year starter KeiVarae Russell.

He played in all 13 games in 2010 and 2011 at cornerback at Florida before having his junior season cut short by a broken foot. Healthy in 2013, Riggs switched to safety.

“If the other team has a big-time outside receiver, I want to play corner,” he said. “If the other team has a big-time slot receiver, I want to play safety. I’ll do whatever the team wants me to do. It really doesn’t matter to me.”

Nor to the Irish staff.

“He will help us immediately,” coach Brian Kelly said when Riggs committed in late February. “Cody Riggs is an outstanding football player.”

Riggs believes people will see someone who spent the last four seasons understanding how to survive and thrive in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference. Yes, he’s at Notre Dame to further his education as a graduate student in the Mendoza College of Business, but he’s also here for another reason — to play football, and play it well.

“I came to play,” he said. “When people see me, they’re going to see the same passion that I played with at Florida. They’re going to see how hard I play and how much I care.”

Four years after Notre Dame lost a recruiting battle to Florida for St. Thomas Aquinas standout Cody Riggs, the defensive back could end up with the Irish. (Photo provided)