- There's a talented pair at the top, but Notre Dame is too thin at running back, especially after the loss of sophomore ‘back Cameron Roberson to a knee injury (severity to be determined by Monday's MRI). Cierre Wood, Jonas Gray, and experienced walk-on Patrick Coughlin can carry the load for the spring's concluding 12 practices, especially if one student emerges from Monday's RB-specific walk-on tryouts.
The more taxing August camp and of course, the 2011 season is a different story. Incoming freshman Cam McDaniel should stick at RB (rather than safety) and wide receiver prospect George Atkinson could see some backfield time if the Irish are without Roberson for a stretch as well.
- The team's wide receivers will have ample opportunity to grow in the offense as the group's star remains in limbo.
"We run a lot of routes, we do a lot of things, but we're a little short in some areas," said Kelly specifically of the team's depleted wide receiver corps. "Our guys fought through it."
Key to the current crop of six (sophomore Daniel Smith was expected to return Monday – a practice closed to the media – after receiving time off for a mild hamstring strain) is the experienced trio of Theo Riddick, T.J. Jones, and John Goodman. The catch, of course, is that "experience" is a relative term: Riddick and Jones have combined for 15 career starts; Goodman just four more.
Has, or will a leader emerge in Michael Floyd's considerable stead?
"That'll tell through time," said wide receivers coach Tony Alford. "Everyone has to do their part in terms of leading and doing what they can do. Goody, being an older guy, you'd like to see him take more of that, but then you have guys like T.J. and Theo that have played a lot of football. So I think everyone will lean on one another. That puts a lot on me too. (Good.)"
Jones started with a flash – two touchdowns in his first two games – but finished fatigued (his last meaningful effort was as the offense's only bright spot vs. Navy). He'll be counted on as more than a freshman with potential this spring and next fall.
"We kind of talked about that: his freshman year is over," said Alford of Jones. "His ‘little' body wore out a little bit. He's going to hate that I said that but it did.
"But that's part of the college game and part of the maturation process. He's bigger and stronger. Coach Longo and his crew have done a great job preparing him. The expectations are very high and he has high expectations of himself."
Asked if Jones was faced with mental tests as much as physical tolls as a first-year player, Alford acknowledged the possibility, but noted a next-level physical pounding is generally at the root of a young player's late-season issues.
"No doubt (that there's a mental toll), but when you're physically beat up, it takes its toll on you mentally, too. "He's bigger and stronger. He walks around with his shirt off a little bit and tries to show his muscles – which he still has none," Alford joked. "Mentally he's refreshed and recharged."
Theo 3.0A whopping 33 of Theo Riddick's 40 receptions last season occurred in a four-game span. Shortly thereafter, Riddick suffered a severely sprained ankle (vs. Western Michigan) and though he returned for the finale at USC, the slot target was nowhere near full strength until the December 31 Sun Bowl victory over Miami.
Now with Floyd's career in question, Riddick will have to ramp up his game to take the reigns as the team's go-to guy.
"We'll put him in a position to get the ball in his hands," said Kelly after Notre Dame's first full-pads practice. "We'll simply call plays and get him situated so he doesn't get doubled – like we did with Mike (last year). He will touch the ball, and if Mike is not back with us, Theo Riddick will pick up the slack and we'll make sure he gets the touches."
Riddick scuffled through last year's opening pair of home games before exploding with 10 receptions in Week Three at Michigan State (plus a career-best 128 yards). He recorded 7 receptions one week later vs. Stanford, another 9 in a bounce-back win at Boston College, and 7 more in a South Bend triumph over Pittsburgh.
Riddick joined classmate Cierre Wood as the only Irish players to score a touchdown in three consecutive games (Riddick hit pay dirt vs. MSU, Stanford and Pittsburgh; Wood vs. Army, USC, and Miami). The New Jersey product is expected to take on the added role of punt returner, an aspect of the game in which the Irish struggled mightily throughout 2010.
According to special teams coach Mike Elston, Notre Dame's troubles in the return game were largely the result of the blockers up front rather than the man catching the punt/kick.
"It was mostly blocking," he said of the return game's repeated folly. "In that position it takes awhile to get a feel for your personal and we had guys on kick-off alone that were six true freshmen. When you're running down the field full speed (covering a kick or punt) its just your skill set that you carry with you, and you're going to be pretty good."
The Irish were among the nation's best covering both punts (20th) and kick-offs (17th) last fall. Additionally, the punt coverage group was flawless with the exception of one 59-yard touchdown return submitted by Tulsa. Over the course of the remaining 12 contests, the Irish yielded an aggregate 14 return yards.
"But when you back them up (as return team blockers) and now they have to run backwards and they have to attack that guy across from them, that's hard to do," Elston continued. "And we were using the same guys. We had a lot of young guys, we didn't have a lot of skill (position players) on the team – so we had to use (freshmen) and it was a combination of mostly blocking and then a lack of experience on the back end.
"We're going to work on getting Theo more reps back there and Cierre as well."
With or without Floyd, Riddick will be a true triple-threat (receiver, runner, return man) next fall.
Click here for Part II and observations of wide receivers vs. defensive backs during the first week of spring ball.