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From stink bug to lightning bug, Cal inside receiver Bug Rivera returns to San Diego to face the Aztecs

Diminutive Cal wide receiver Bug Rivera likely to play a big role against San Diego State as Bears head south.

Growing up an hour away from San Diego, Bug Rivera, this weekend's tilt against San Diego State at Qualcomm Stadium will be a bit of a homecoming. But, were it not for the NCAA, Rivera may still be there, except not in the Aztecs' black and red.

“It’s hard to stay, but I think that I would have stayed. I really loved USD, and the city of San Diego," said Rivera, a former running back for the Toreros of the Pioneer League. "It’s hard to say, but I think I would have.” A four-year starter at Cypress (Calif.), Rivera posted 125.7 yards per game as a senior, and was the Empire League MVP, but only had preferred walk-on offers from San Diego State, Oregon State and Hawaii. Instead of taking those, he chose the University of San Diego, an FCS program.

San Diego was not only close to home, but it's where Rivera's uncle -- Ron Rivera, former California linebacker and current head coach of the NFL's Carolina Panthers -- coached for four seasons with the San Diego Chargers. But, in November of 2013, then-redshirt freshman Rivera was told that USD would have to forfeit its chance at the league's first automatic berth in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. The Pioneer League -- like the Ivy League, and unlike the majority of FCS schools -- does not permit athletic scholarships, but players were still awarded grants masked as academic scholarships.

“We heard some rumors that there was an investigation going on, with two games left in the season," said Rivera. "Before the last game, the athletic director brought us in, and talked to us about the investigation and how we were going to have to forfeit all our wins, and there were some rumors that USD might not continue having a football program, so after that last gam, I talked to the coaches, I talked to the athletic director to try to get a feel for what was going on, and I felt like my best opportunity was to go somewhere else. I immediately started sending out my film and getting in contact with coaches, and Cal got back to me, and was excited to see what I could do.”

Of course, the Bears and the Rivera family had plenty of history, with Rivera serving as an All-American linebacker in Berkeley, earning him a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame and the Cal Athletics Hall of Fame in 1994.

“He didn’t necessarily push me in any direction," said Rivera. "He wanted me to make my own decision, but I’d be lying if I said he didn’t have an influence on my decision. I definitely have a strong connection with Cal, so I kind of knew what I was going to do. For me, it was an easy choice.”

After a year as a running back, and a year as an inside receiver, sitting behind the sextet of wide outs ahead of him -- including the likes of Bryce TreggsDarius Powe and Stephen Anderson -- Rivera used a strong fall camp to vault himself into the regular rotation this year, hauling in five passes for 54 yards in the Bears' season opener in Sydney, Australia, against the same Warriors who offered him a preferred walk-on spot. He didn't get to talk to his uncle directly after the game, but his father did pass along several compliments.

"He’s been pretty busy lately, but my dad got to talk to him. He said he got to see the game and everything, and he had some good things to say," Rivera said. “He liked how I maneuvered in space, what little space that I had, and the catches that I made and the routes. He had a list of compliments. I can’t remember them all, to be honest with you.” At 5-foot-8, 180 pounds, Rivera is a quick, shifty jitterbug of an inside receiver, and a crisp route-runner with sure hands. He's come a long way from the origins of his unique nickname.

“It was given to me by my mom when I was just a baby," Rivera said. "It was the way I used to crawl – on my hands and my feet with my butt in the air, like a stink bug. They started calling me Sting Bug, and thankfully, they shortened it to just Bug when I got older.” 

Now, he's the bug in the bonnets of opposing teams, who are busy preparing for the likes of four-star Melquise Stovall and five-star Demetris Robertson.

"Bug had a great summer, Bug had a good spring," said head coach Sonny Dykes. "Bug is one of those guys that we're going to count on to play some for us, and he's proven he can do it. There's no question in our mind that he can be a good player and make plays."

Last season, Rivera played sparingly against San Diego State, after having caught two balls for 92 yards, including a 63-yard touchdown from Chase Forrest against Grambling State in the season opener. When Rivera takes the field on Saturday, he'll have quite a cheering section.

"I’m happy to go back to San Diego and show them what I got," Rivera said. “There are going to be a lot of people. My family, a lot of my friends and former teammates are going to try and make the game. I’ve got a good little cheering section.” The Toreros -- still kicking after the Pioneer League deemed no further sanctions were necessary after San Diego voluntarily removed itself from the 2013 conference championship -- have a game at 4 p.m., up the coast at Cal Poly-SLO, so there are a few former teammates who won't be able to attend, but there are plenty who will.

“I don’t know how many people are going to be able to make it from the team, but I know some former students and current students are going to try to make it out to my game," Rivera said.

However many well-wishers come out for Saturday's tilt at Qualcomm, it will pale in comparison to the amount of best friends and long lost family he gained late in January, after his uncle's Panthers beat the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship, punching their ticket to Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Calif.

“I got messages from people I haven’t talked to since elementary school; It was kind of fun," Rivera said. "I didn’t mind it at all, actually.”

It was the first Super Bowl that Rivera had ever been to, and Unc didn't disappoint -- though the result of the game itself was somewhat sub-optimal for the Rivera clan.

“It was right in the front, the second row, in the middle," Rivera said of his 45-yard line seats. "My parents went to one when [Ron] coached for the [Chicago] Bears, but it was the first one I went to, so I was extremely excited. I had a great time. That was the cool thing about it. It was right down the street, basically, and it was an amazing opportunity to have everything to come together like that.”

Rivera got another opportunity to get up-close with the Panthers again, this summer, during training camp, working in a shadowing program for a week with Carolina's video department, and he also helped his uncle out in other ways.

After going undrafted last spring, offensive guard Jordan Rigsbee had a few "things fall though," with NFL teams, but Uncle Ron -- who had seen the four-year starter plenty over his time at Cal -- had a few extra inside scouting reports to bolster Rigsbee's already-sterling resume.

"I know Tedford had a little bit to say about how good of a guy he was to my uncle, and my uncle liked to get a feel of Jordan Rigsbee from me, as well, and I had nothing but good things to ay about him. It seemed like an easy fit, he said," Rivera said of Rigsbee, who is currently on the injured reserve after rosters were cut to 53 on Saturday. “When I got to go out there, I got to see the first week of training camp, and I got to see Rigsbee in action, and all the good things that he was doing. All the coaches had great things to say about him, so I’m not surprised that he’s close to making it.”

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