SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame’s return game struggled for years to generate any kind of positive contribution.
Cody Riggs gave Irish fans a reason to feel good about special teams with two lengthy punt returns in Saturday’s 48-17 win over Rice.
The Florida transfer ran one back 24 yards and another 25, both setting up Notre Dame around midfield early in the first quarter.
After that, Riggs, the team’s No. 1 cornerback in the absence of KeiVarae Russell, didn’t return another punt because coach Brian Kelly noticed Riggs was gassed.
Still, it only took those two dynamic run-backs to turn around the recent ineptitude.
Consider: the Irish averaged just 7.1 yards on their punt returns in 2013. Riggs’ total punt return yardage Saturday (49) was nearly half of the team’s total for all of last season (106).
It amazingly surpassed the team’s punt return yardage in 2012 (46) and 2011 (48).
Starting field position the last several years was absolutely miserable, Kelly said. Hidden yardage will help us win.
Riggs said he was excited to return punts – and had fun doing so in his Notre Dame debut – despite playing a big role in the base defense.
When I get an opportunity, I try to make the most of it, he said. When you have a chance to score touchdowns, you’re not tired.
Riggs did concede Kelly was right, though. Riggs was also on the team’s kickoff coverage units, and the fatigue built up too quickly.
He was trying to make sure I had a break, Riggs said. I played close to 70 snaps. That was a little rough for me, but I wanted to go back there.
But why Riggs? With all the athletes Notre Dame has had during Kelly’s tenure, what made Riggs able to break free for chunks of yards?
I was able to see the seams, he said. Right before the ball came down, I was able to get a peek downfield, caught the ball, saw where I had space and made some people miss.
Later in the opening period, the old Notre Dame was back, as sophomore halfback Greg Bryant let a punt bounce over his head and then picked it up dangerously close to his own goal line.
He’s so fearless he’s never heard of a fair catch, Kelly said. He tried to give me the story of he had his ear buds in and couldn’t hear me.
Bryant returned a punt for 18 yards later in the game, and the kick returns got 49 yards on two attempts by Amir Carlisle.
I think we’ve improved, Kelly said. We need to do it consistently.