Notre Dame CB Cody Riggs navigates transfer with help, hard work

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — They had hoped to be partners, a cornerback combination that would shock opponents in its depth, its proficiency and its ability to get in receivers' faces and make them wilt.

Even now, with that vision frozen in a seemingly endless labyrinth of protocol and procedure off the field, Notre Dame cornerback Cody Riggs carries a part of suspended junior KeiVarae Russell with him into each game.

“Over the summer, I didn’t go home on weekends and I didn’t go to Chicago either,” said Riggs, a transfer from the University of Florida, who is playing cornerback for the first time since being converted to safety in 2011.

“I’d stay (on campus) and came in Saturday and Sunday to do more. And KeiVarae would stay and work with me, just to make sure I got my stuff down. So that transition was easier because of that.”

Russell and four other indefinitely suspended Irish will sit out their fourth straight game Saturday night (8 EDT; ABC-TV), when Riggs and the eighth-ranked Irish (3-0) try to keep Syracuse’s woes in the passing game going in a matchup at MetLife Stadium.

The Orange (2-1) rank 99th nationally out of 125 FBS schools in passing offense and 93rd in passing efficiency, but are strong in the run game on offense and feature the best pass rush on defense the Irish have seen to date (ninth nationally in sacks).

It will mark the third successive night game for Notre Dame out of a possible school-record eight if you include postseason. It’s a stress Brian Kelly said his players feel, coming back in the early morning hours, perhaps no one more so than Riggs.

“I’m in six classes, so it’s pretty hectic,” said Riggs a graduate student in Notre Dame’s Executive Master’s in Business Administration program.

“There are some (team) meetings I can’t make so sometimes. I have to have my meetings between classes in the middle of the day, like 11 or something. But I’ve been able to balance it out pretty well.

“The coaching staff has been very helpful. The strength staff has been very helpful to work it on around my schedule, and it hasn’t conflicted at all.”

While 14 players have left the program as graduate-school style transfers during Kelly’s five-year tenure, Riggs’ arrival marked only the second time ever 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 last December with the same status.

“This is the first time we’ve had somebody in the Executive MBA program here at Notre Dame; we wanted to make it work,” Kelly said. “I wanted to make it work for Cody.

“He’s an exceptional student-athlete. First of all, any time that we can bring in a kid of this caliber and promote a student-athlete like this, it’s a win-win situation both academically and from a football standpoint.

“Based upon the work load, it’s just academics and football and just really nothing else for him. But he’s going through a pretty incredible experience right now.”

And one he wouldn’t trade for anything.

Especially this weekend, where he’ll have a family reunion of sorts. Riggs’ uncle, former Notre Dame wide receiver standout Bobby Brown, lives in Northern New Jersey, where he is an attorney.

“It’s more like a big brother relationship than anything else,” Riggs said of Brown.

Not only will Brown and his family attend the game, but 16 other relatives — many from Riggs’ and Brown’s native Florida — are expected to make the trip to the New York City area for the weekend.

“He’s played a major role,” Riggs said of Brown. “He’s a big part of my life, a big influence in my life. He didn’t push me toward Notre Dame, but he just pushed me toward making the best decision possible.”

Brown flew in to South Bend to accompany Riggs on his recruiting visit to ND on a blizzard-esque night back in February. The night before the visit Brown had him meet up with former Irish football standouts Tony Rice, Bobbie Howard and Kinnon Tatum in Chicago.

“I didn’t go out with them, but I did talk to them when they got back,” Riggs said. “I stayed back at the apartment and studied for the GMAT (the Graduate Management Admission Test).”

Riggs has been a quick study on the field with seven tackles, two pass breakups and an interception.

“I’ve always felt like I was a natural corner and I feel comfortable in this defense,” he said. “It allows me to show off my quickness and aggressiveness, and I think that’s two attributes that I excel at. The extra work I put in helped too.”

So did Russell.

“KeiVarae kind of took him under his wing in a sense,” Kelly said, “and I think if you talk to Cody, one of the things that really stood out to him was how welcoming everybody was, taking a transfer in. He just felt really comfortable that the team really embraced him.”

Riggs still follows his old teammates at Florida closely.

“I watch them every Saturday,” he said. “If I don’t see them live, I make sure somebody records them for me. I’m always rooting for them, I know that. It feels weird. But it’s just like I’ve got to know what they’re running.

“This isn’t just about football, being here at Notre Dame. That’s what I explained to the coaches at Florida. At first, it wasn’t much of a happy room, but after a while, they were very professional about it, and handled it the right way and they were helpful to me.”

And they, in turn, are rooting for Riggs.

“It’s not easy here, and I knew it wouldn’t be, but it’s worked out very well and I’m glad I’m here. Both the master’s program and the football program are everything I thought they would be.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Notre Dame cornerback Cody Riggs intercepts a pass intended for Michigan's Amara Darboh. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)