Apr 23, 2014, 1:46 PM EDT
In early June, 21 freshmen will officially become part of the Notre Dame football program. So will Cody Riggs. The former Florida defensive back might be a newcomer at Notre Dame, but will immediately be the most experienced player on the Irish defense.
Riggs’ one year journey is a unique case. While head coach Brian Kelly has accepted fifth year transfer students in the past, Riggs is cut from a different cloth. He’s played 40 games for one of the SEC’s best defenses. He’s got positional flexibility at a spot where Brian VanGorder covets that versatility. And as the Irish defense leaves spring practice will more than a few unanswered questions, Riggs will hopefully play a big part in supplying some answers.
Riggs is eligible to play immediately after transferring under the same rule that granted Andrew Hendrix and Alex Welch immediate eligibility at Miami (Ohio). And a season ending injury at the beginning of the 2012 season allows him to jump right into a talented but inexperienced secondary. How helpful will Riggs experience be? Consider he’s played more than an entire season more of football than Keivarae Russell, the next most experienced player on the defense.
Riggs nearly spent the last four seasons in South Bend, but committed to Florida, choosing the Gators over Notre Dame around the same time Brian Kelly took the head coaching job. Four years later, the Irish finally landed the 5-foot-9, 190-pound cornerback. And from his official comments in late February, Kelly knows he landed a critical defender.
“Cody Riggs is an outstanding player,” said Kelly. “He played a ton of football at Florida having started at both safety and corner back. Cody definitely brings veteran leadership and versatility to our team and defense.”
After watching Bob Diaco recruit players to positional profiles for the past four seasons, it’s interesting that Riggs is almost the prototype off-profile recruit. He’s undersized at 5-foot-9. But he’s clearly capable of doing things that appeal to VanGorder’s system, with cross-training between cornerback and safety a true need on this defense.
Veteran safety Matthias Farley was shifted into that role for the spring, learning how to be a cover corner on the fly. But comparing him to Riggs is difficult. Riggs was a key cog in a Florida secondary that put together back-to-back seasons as one of the ten toughest defenses to pass against in college football.
Russell and safety Max Redfield feel like the only “sure things” in this secondary, with Redfield’s status still more a projection. It’s hard not to consider Riggs the same type of player. Where VanGorder decides to use the versatile defender is the last true question.
Riggs expressed a desire to play cornerback, after starting all 12 games for the Gators last season at safety. While Cole Luke has slid into the starting job, Riggs will likely challenge for that job, creating another nice piece of depth along with Devin Butler.
While most will get caught up in the race for the starting spot opposite Russell, in reality the Irish will likely have three cornerbacks on the field at all times. And Riggs’ combination of diminutive size, elite speed and ability to play multiple positions makes him an ideal candidate to cover slot receivers — a nickel cornerback that might not come off the field.
“I am very thankful for this opportunity,” Riggs said in Notre Dame’s official release. “I fully intend to make the most of this opportunity by not only giving my absolute best effort, but also leading by example both on and off the field.”
Bringing a one-and-done player into the program is a decision that was weighed heavily. Bringing in a situational punter is one thing, but Riggs will need to step in and play a key role in the defense, something that necessitates a high character individual.
After meeting with Riggs and his family during his “recruitment” period, Kelly sounded sold on that aspect of the decision.
“He will help us immediately but, more importantly, Cody is a great kid with a tremendous focus on both football and academics,” Kelly said. “His decision to complete his collegiate playing career and pursue a graduate degree at the University of Notre Dame speaks volumes about both our program and University.”
Riggs is completing his degree in Family, Youth and Community Sciences this semester. He’ll then spend summer courses and the fall semester pursuing a masters degree at Notre Dame before likely turning his attention to prepping for the NFL Draft, where he projects to play on Sundays.
Entering his fifth season in South Bend, that’s the type of player that a head coach should take a chance on. And from the sounds of Riggs’ comments, it’s a decision he took very seriously.
“Being on campus, meeting with the academic personnel and interacting with the Notre Dame players helped me dot the I’s and cross the T’s on what has been the toughest decision of my life,” Riggs said back in February. “I am excited about working hard in the classroom and expanding my professional network in pursuit of a graduate degree from Notre Dame. I am equally excited to contribute on the field and make some big plays to help the team win games.”