Why Malik Rivera’s grad-transfer year at Tech was ‘really satisfying’

When Malik Rivera made the decision to leave Wofford for Georgia Tech as a graduate transfer, he was the rare case. Rivera was the case of a football player who was legitimately as interested, if not more, in obtaining a master’s degree as he was in the playing opportunity. Getting on the field for the Yellow Jackets would be a bonus.

“My mindset when I got here was to teach the young guys and teach everybody as much as I could,” he said. “I had no expectation of getting on the field. That not even close to my mind, I think.”

Rivera’s one season with the Jackets will conclude Wednesday at the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit. The game against Minnesota will be coach Paul Johnson’s final game, but among other things, it will also be the final game for a player who has done more in one season than many accomplish in four.

Rivera not only got on the field, he started all 12 games. And not only did he start, but he led the Jackets in tackles (61) and tied for the team lead in interceptions (two). And, for good measure, he was essential to Tech’s defense in helping teammates learn defensive coordinator Nate Woody’s scheme.

“It’s been a really satisfying thing,” said Rivera, from Jacksonville, Fla. “I was really just excited with the opportunity when it happened and I knew I was going to be able to play. Like I said, it wasn’t something I was expecting, but I’m happy that it’s come to this point. I was able to do as much as I possibly could.”

Rivera played three seasons at Wofford after redshirting his first year on campus, rising to become a starter at free safety for the Terriers as a junior in 2017. At 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, Rivera is small for his position, but had a mind that enabled him to pick up the defense quickly. It might be expected for someone who graduated as a triple major with degrees in computer science, finance and mathematics. As Rivera has told the story, he decided to pursue it after his roommates dared him and, after plotting out classes on a spreadsheet, he realized he could actually do it.

Last year, at the end of Wofford’s season, his closest friends on the team were graduating and heading their own ways. On the verge of graduation but not yet ready for the work world, a transfer to Tech and playing for the Jackets became an option. Rivera’s position coach at Wofford, Shiel Wood, had taken a job as safeties coach at Tech, and, being versed in the defense (Wood’s scheme was similar to Woody’s), he could be an extra resource to the team. Just as important, Tech offered a master’s program that matched his interests and knowledge base – quantitative and computational finance.

Even before preseason practice began, Rivera was watching video with younger safeties explaining the defense. In practice, he tutored and encouraged. In games, he helped organize a defense learning the scheme on the fly. For a team that came out of spring practice unsure how it would fill the void left by A.J. Gray after he was medically disqualified with a heart condition, Rivera was a valuable replacement, proving wrong his own doubts that he might not be able to compete with players bigger and more talented than him.

Rivera took a particular interest in his backup, freshman safety Juanyeh Thomas. The two spent two hours daily watching game video, Rivera explaining the intricacies of the position and scheme – where to line up, how alignment changed based on formation, recognizing tendencies and other details.

“I’m a dude to learn and he was a dude to teach me everything this year, literally,” Thomas said. “All the coverages.”

In Thomas, Rivera found a pupil with a passion for the game and a bubbly personality. The two were a match, each happy to cede playing time to the other. Rivera prodded Thomas to be vocal on the field, actively communicating with the other defensive backs. Last week, Rivera reported with pride that Thomas was now yelling out his responsibility on a coverage to the other defensive backs without any prompting.

“It just makes you really happy at this point, honestly,” Rivera said.

With football over after the bowl game, Rivera can dig into his master’s program. He will be an intern this summer for Bank of America as a global quantitative analyst. Then one more semester and he’ll have his degree. According to the school, 2016 graduates from the program had an average total compensation of $102,000.

And, as intended, Rivera will also leave something of himself at Tech. Despite being on the Jackets roster less than a calendar year, he has handed down to Thomas, as well as other returning safeties (Kaleb Oliver, Tariq Carpenter, Christian Campbell, Jarett Cole and Avery Showell) a better understanding of how to watch game video, how to think through down-and-distance and how to scout opponents and the like.

For Rivera, as well as for Tech, the decision to venture out on his own has proven immensely rewarding.

“I’m very thankful for it,” he said. “I don’t think I could actually be happier.”