Notre Dame defense better with Cody Riggs at corner

Bob Wieneke
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – During a recent meeting of the Notre Dame defense, Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder asked if anyone in the room had ever beaten LSU, ND’s opponent in the Dec. 30 Music City Bowl.

Answers to the affirmative were few, but perhaps double what VanGorder had expected.

“Me and him were the only two to raise our hands,” offered Irish fifth-year cornerback Cody Riggs, who spent his first four years at Florida before transferring to ND to play his final season.

VanGorder’s triumph over LSU came in 2004 when he was the defensive coordinator at Georgia. Riggs’ came two years ago when he was in his junior season at Florida, but it comes with an asterisk. The transfer played only two games that season before a fractured foot ended his season, the result being that he did not play in the Bulldogs’ victory over LSU.

Riggs is, however, expected to play in this contest as Irish coach Brian Kelly said last weekend that Riggs will start against the Tigers after missing two of the final four regular-season games and most of another because of a stress reaction in his foot.

“Certainly we’re a much better defense with Cody at the corner,” Kelly said.

Tackling from cornerback will no doubt come into play as the Irish aim to stop the LSU run game. The Tigers average 219 rushing yards per game, ranking 27th nationally.

The big name is freshman Leonard Fournette, the nation’s top high school running back a year ago. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Fournette ran for 891 yards during the regular season.

“You’ve got to tackle. The guy breaks a lot of tackles, he hits the hole,” said the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Riggs who has 33 tackles and an interception in 10 games. “You’re not going to bring him down with an arm tackle.”

It isn’t just Fournette though. Terrence Magee ran for 545 yards and Kelly Hilliard 431.

“They have talented backs, they’ve always had talented backs every year I’ve played them, so you’ve got to tackle and you’ve got to maintain leverage and you’ve got to play smart,” Riggs said.

Riggs is playing it smart with his return from injury, good news arriving in that he's approaching 100 percent in terms of speed.

“For the most part. Obviously not there 100 percent but we have time and I’ve been getting rehab and making sure I don’t miss anything, making sure I’m getting back to full speed as fast as possible,” Riggs said. “That’s why I pick and choose my reps, I don’t want to overdo it but at the same time I need to make sure I’m in tip-top shape for this game.”

Riggs injured his foot in the Nov. 1 win over Navy, made the trip to Arizona State the following week and tried to go through pregame warmups, but it was evident he wasn’t close to 100 percent.

“It was so frustrating. The whole week I wasn’t able to, but you never know. You never know how you’re going to feel on game day, maybe you can make it through a quarter or two just to give the defense a little bit,” Riggs said. “But I couldn’t even do a drill in warmups.”

He played the following week against Northwestern but the injury began to present itself at halftime after Riggs sat down. Against Louisville the next game, Riggs was sidelined early when he stepped on someone’s foot, the image of Riggs limping to the locker room a snapshot of the state of ND’s injury-ravaged defense over the final month.

Instead of sitting and pouting, Riggs did all he could to help replacement Devin Butler.

“I tried to get Devin ready as much as possible, I tried to talk to him, walk him through everything,” Riggs said. “Every time he was on our side, if he was the corner to our sideline, I’d make sure I was calling out everything, trying to let him know what’s about to happen.”

What’s about to happen next week is Riggs returning to the lineup to play his final college game. Family will be in attendance, and Riggs will be suiting up on his birthday no less.

“I’m working my way back in there,” Riggs said, “and it feels pretty good to get back in there.”

Martin makes Pro Bowl roster

Former Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin was selected Tuesday for the NFL’s Pro Bowl. The Dallas left guard joined St. Louis defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Baltimore linebacker C.J. Mosley as the only rookies to receive the designation.

Martin has been a part of an offensive line resurgence in Dallas. Cowboys running back Demarco Murray has rushed for a league-leading 1,745 yards behind Martin and company. Fellow Cowboys offensive linemen Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick were also named to the teams.

Because the Pro Bowl is no longer split by conference affiliation, Martin will not know which team he will be assigned to until the Pro Bowl Draft on Wednesday, Jan. 21. The game will be played on Sunday, Jan. 25 in Glendale, Ariz.

Rees back in the game

Former Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees is joining the Northwestern coaching staff as a graduate assistant, according to Wildcat Digest, a member of the 247Sports network.

Rees, who played at ND from 2010-13, signed a free-agent contract with the Washington Redskins last spring but was waived. Rees spent last season working for a startup company in the Chicago area.

“I felt like it was too soon to kind of rush back into coaching," Rees told the Tribune in September, "but I definitely think I see that in my future."

Against Louisville, Cody Riggs was sidelined early when he stepped on someone’s foot, the image of him limping to the locker room a snapshot of the state of ND’s injury-ravaged defense over the final month. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)