Stepping up, Stepping Out
Gerald Riggs, Jr. matures on and off the field
by Tony Basilio
He’s only started three of the 31 contests he’s played in for Tennessee, yet the expectations for him are sky-high. His position coach has even used the “H” word in describing the kind of season that could lie ahead. It’s amazing what a difference the last year has made in the life of Gerald Riggs, Jr.
Twelve short months ago, Riggs was considered a bust. He seemed to be on the fast track to nowhere. Riggs projected aimlessness, both on and off the field. The lack of cultivation of his immense talent frustrated coaches, teammates and fans alike. To whom much is given….
He had appeared on the front page of the Chattanooga Times in December of ’01. The nation’s top football player, according to several recruiting analysts, was posing in a Superman cape. The wavy-haired 18-year old, Chattanooga Red Bank High School senior was featured in a shot from atop Signal Mountain, and he even had the “S” on his chest. It might as well have been an “X.” Much was expected….
But Riggs’ first two years at Tennessee were anything but productive. Going into last season, he had collected a paltry 256 yards rushing in two years. I’d lay odds that Metro Pulse columnist Frank Cagle himself could’ve put up similar numbers, given a jersey and a little playing time. At the midpoint of his college career, Riggs was adrift.
The winter ’04 hiring of Trooper Taylor as Tennessee’s running backs coach may prove to be the most significant development in Riggs’ career. If Woody McCorvey was still manning this position, it seems unlikely that Riggs would’ve climbed out of the hole he had dug for himself as a freshman and sophomore. Taylor, who brought an infectious energy to the Vols from the moment he arrived in Knoxville, rekindled the fire in Riggs. Just as important, his slate was wiped clean.
What Riggs has accomplished since then is nothing short of remarkable. He literally came out of nowhere to run for over 1,000 yards in 2004, though he actually started only three games. Taking into account the fact that, this year, he won’t be splitting carries with fellow thousand-yard rusher Cedric Houston, Riggs could be in for even better things in ’05.
When asked if his pupil had a shot, at dare I say, the Heisman Trophy, Taylor was emphatic. “I see all those backs that are on the same list. I took time to watch film on all the guys (around the country) who are being mentioned. I showed the film to Gerald and he understands that he does have a legitimate shot [at the Heisman],” Taylor said.
Before you erupt in laughter, consider that Riggs outperformed Auburn’s talented tandem of Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams in last year’s SEC Championship Game. Riggs threw up 182 yards on only 11 carries. His signature run was an 80 yarder where he went the distance on an ultra-quick Auburn defense. That run on which Riggs showed a different gear—not seen in Rocky Top since Travis Henry and Jamal Lewis—has Tennessee faithful salivating at what could happen in the coming season.
Still, Taylor won’t let Riggs take anything for granted as his senior year progresses. “I tell him and all my backs this,” Taylor says. “I do business like the barber. When he finishes with you he says ‘Next.’ If you can’t get it done, we’ll put the next one out there. As long as he has the mindset that he’s not the only guy that we go to, he’ll make sure he does the right thing.”
According to Taylor, doing the right thing has become a common practice these days in Riggs’ world. “He’s been really great,” says Taylor. “Not just with football issues. But things off the field as well. He’s been able to stand up and talk to our young guys about decision-making and choices he made that have cost him. Because he could’ve been a feature back a long time ago. He’s as talented as he was when he came in here. The thing that’s changed is his maturity level.”
To the rest of the Southeastern Conference: Get ready! To Division I defenses: Beware! Gerald Riggs, Jr. has grown up!
Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM.