CB Riggs finding a comfort level at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Cody Riggs can’t tell you the last time he returned a punt, or even performed the dreaded fair catch, in a game that meant something.

But the Florida transfer volunteered for that duty anyway for his first and only year in a Notre Dame uniform. And the 5-foot-9, 185-pound ND grad student auditioned well enough to the point he’s battling sophomore running back Greg Bryant and junior slot receiver C.J. Prosise for the job with less than three weeks until the Aug. 30 season opener with Rice.

Not that there’s a rich recent history to live up to.

ND’s national punt return rankings in head coach Brian Kelly’s four seasons at ND, going backward from 2013, are 80th (out of 123), 116th, 112th and 110th among FBS schools. And that doesn’t factor in how fair-catch happy the Irish have been during the Kelly Era.

“I’ve heard,” Riggs said of ND’s struggles to be special on special teams. “It surprised me, because I know a couple of guys that were here that were pretty explosive.”

Riggs has the elite speed to be explosive, and not just on punt returns. The former standout at national prep football power St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was a three-time state champion in the 300-meter hurdles, with the third of those coming after STA moved up to the state’s largest division in track (Class 4A). The Raiders captured the boys state title in each of those years (2008, 2009, 2010).

Riggs also won the Class 3A long jump championship as a junior and finished fourth twice in his other seasons on the team. He was a runner-up in the 110 high hurdles in 2009 and ran on three 4x400 relay teams that placed in the top five at the state meet in consecutive seasons.

He returned kickoffs, not punts, while at St. Thomas. At the University of Florida, Riggs was a practice punt returner, but never got a chance to do it in a game. Riggs purports, though, he was on every special team at Florida in some kind of role, something he wouldn’t mind repeating at ND.

At Notre Dame, the son of former All-Pro NFL running back Gerald Riggs, nephew of former Irish wide receiver Bobby Brown and younger brother of former University of Tennessee standout running back Gerald Riggs Jr., will also play cornerback.

That’s the position he specialized in as a freshman and sophomore at Florida. He could also see action at nickel in ND’s five-defensive backs packages, or even on rare occasions at safety, where he started at 13 games last season for the Gators’ eighth-ranked pass defense. Riggs received an injury redshirt season in 2012.

Through the first week-plus of fall training camp, Riggs has so far split first-team reps with sophomore Cole Luke at the cornerback spot opposite junior standout KeiVarae Russell.

“He’s very good,” Riggs said of the chatty 5-11, 190-pound Russell who made a handful of national Defensive Player of the Year watch lists, but somehow was omitted from the Thorpe list, recognizing specifically elite defensive backs.

“He’s right there at the top, one of the best I’ve had the privilege of playing with.”

Russell would argue Riggs is helping to make him better as well as the other cornerbacks in the deepest corps at that position in recent memory.

He brings a physicality to the position, strips the ball well from receivers on apparent catches and brings a confidence to the field that seems to rub off on the others at the position.

“He fits in well for us, mature,” Kelly offered. “He brings a lot of leadership, and experience so very helpful. KeiVarae is learning football at that position, and I think Cody has been very helpful with experience and talking about reading receivers. He’s been a good mentor.”

Riggs said that the biggest adjustment on or off the field is time management and he is on track to receive a master’s of science in management next spring. He pointed out that while most of his teammates have been out of school since the week before training camp and won’t return for another couple of weeks, he’s still finishing up grad school finals from summer school.

Riggs strongly considered Notre Dame coming out of high school, before picking the home-state Gators. But he never lost touch with the team, following the Irish very closely even when he was at Florida.

“I grew up watching Notre Dame,” he said. “I used to come to the games all the time when I was younger. I’ve always followed Notre Dame. Bobby (Brown) and I always talk about it. My roommate at Florida, his dad was like the biggest Notre Dame fan I’ve ever met in my life.”

Most of the players Riggs met during the recruiting process and stayed in touch with — wide receiver TJ Jones and fellow Floridians Louis Nix and Lo Wood — are no longer on the Irish roster. Fifth-year senior linebacker Kendall Moore and walk-on wide receiver Ernie Soto, a high school teammate of Riggs, were the only familiar faces when he arrived.

“It’s a special team,” Riggs said. “They just accepted me right away. I didn’t know what to expect at first, but everybody was just very accepting, they embraced me and everybody was willing to work with me.”

Riggs surprised the Gator coaches on Feb. 5, when he told them of his intention to transfer. He and head coach Will Muschamp reportedly left on good terms, but Riggs acknowledged there was some resentment elsewhere in the program.

While 14 players have left the Irish roster as grad-school style transfers during Kelly’s tenure alone, Riggs transfer marks only the second time Notre Dame was on the receiving end of the fifth-year, no-waiting period transfer and the first to receive a scholarship. Punter Alex Wulfeck came from Wake Forest in June of 2013 as a walk-on and walked away after the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 29 with the same status.

Riggs visited the Notre Dame campus on Feb. 17 with Brown, and stepfather, Alex Armenteros, accompanying him during the visit. The three spent time with former Irish standouts Tony Rice, Bobbie Howard and Kinnon Tatum the night before arriving in South Bend.

According to Brown, Stanford, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Boston College, Wisconsin, Duke and Northwestern were some of the other schools that got involved once Riggs was granted his release from Florida.

“I’m pretty sure everybody knows that I’m here for the team, not just for myself, not just to get a graduate degree,” he said. “I’m actually here to help this team win as well.” | 574-235-6112 | Twitter: @ehansenNDI

Cornerback Cody Riggs, right, (2) makes a tackle during drills at Notre Dame on Saturday, August 9, 2014, in South Bend. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)