Quadruple Threat?

A breakout season for junior wide receiver Theo Riddick appears imminent…it's definitely necessary.

Potential, both developed and forthcoming, exists in spades. But if on-field evidence is our guide, there aren't many givens for the Irish offense in Brian Kelly's second season.

Senior wide receiver Michael Floyd is one, ranking among the nation's best players.

Juniors Tyler Eifert, Zack Martin, and Cierre Wood are good bets to be solid at worst.

Then there's – purportedly, at least – the team's most breathtaking player with the ball in his hands, Theo Riddick, of whom Kelly offered will serve as a punt returner, kick returner, slot and outside receiver, and we can surmise, an occasional running back and/or Wildcat quarterback, this fall.

"Theo Riddick, Theo Riddick, Theo Riddick, Theo Riddick. He's got to do it," Kelly said specifically of the junior's added role on the Irish return teams. "Anything. Wherever you kick the ball, he's got to be around it. Kickoff return, him and Bennett Jackson right now. Punt, it will be Theo."

Riddick's next punt return will be his first. His next kick return in excess of 38 yards will as well. So will his first catch that covers more than 37 or run that exceeds 24.

At 10.4 yards per catch last year, Riddick ranked alongside Duval Kamara (10.2) at the bottom of the team's chart. Six players exceeded or matched his longest reception including power back Robert Hughes.

Has Kelly put the cart before his junior horse, or is Riddick's oft-discussed emergence inevitable?

"He's fully entrenched in it now and has improved his game ten-fold from this time a year ago," said Riddick's position coach throughout his college career, Tony Alford. "(Last year) it wasn't about ‘why' we were doing something, it was just, ‘Listen, run over here and find space, period. This is where you go.' But he didn't always understand the ‘why.'

"Now I think he has a good grasp conceptually of what we ask him to do and why we ask him to do it. He's better because of that. He's done a really good job of learning, studying the game, working on his hands and his individual skills as a wide receiver. I'm really proud of him."

(Alford offered in the spring that Riddick possessed among the best hands on the team. Tight end Tyler Eifert was another mentioned, though its notable Michael Floyd was not a member of the team at the time.)

Riddick had a chance, however briefly, to showcase those hands early last season, but a four-game stretch of quality play and skill-improvement was stunted by an ankle injury.

Good company

Michael Floyd hasn't done it. Neither did Jeff Samardzija, Maurice Stovall, Rhema McKnight, Derrick Mayes, Lake Dawson, Rocket Ismail, or Tim Brown.

In fact, over the last 40 seasons, only Golden Tate (2009) and Tom Gatewood (1970) caught as many passes over a four-game stretch as did the first-time wide receiver Riddick last season.

A statistical oddity to be sure, as most members of the receiver royalty listed above at least approached Riddick's 33-catch/4-game stretch – often far exceeding his yardage and touchdown totals in the process.

But from Week Three (at MSU) through Week Six (vs. Pittsburgh), Riddick evolved from an afterthought in the offense, with four non-descript catches, into one of the focal points of Brian Kelly's passing game:

  • Michigan State: 10 receptions, 128 yards, 1 touchdown – included were six receptions in excess of 15 yards and a leaping one-handed stab (pictured above) of a Dayne Crist pass.
  • Stanford: 7 receptions 71 yards, 1 TD – three of his seven grabs exceeded 14 yards though the three-yard touchdown was at the contest's merciful end.
  • Boston College: 9 receptions, 69 yards, and a 20-yard touchdown on 3rd and 10 that staked the Irish to a 21-0 lead.
  • Pittsburgh: 7 receptions for 75 yards including consecutive first down grabs on three straight Dayne Crist passes to set up Notre Dame's only fourth quarter points.

(Floyd corralled 25 receptions for 319 yards and three touchdowns over the same four-game span.)

Riddick suffered a severe high-ankle sprain in Week Seven vs. Western Michigan. The Irish dropped their next two outings to fall to 4-5 without him in the slot role.

Through the roof

Last season, Kelly noted the importance of a playmaking presence in the slot for his spread attack.

"It's really about how you're going to play the box for us, how many guys you're going to put in the box. If (the defense) drops that Sam ‘backer and you want to put him in the box, Theo is out in space with nobody over him, and that's probably not a match up that teams want."

It's arguable that Riddick is the team's second-best wide receiver, second-best running back, quickest player with the football, only potential game-breaker in the return game, and the best Wildcat Quarterback option on the 2011 squad.

Notre Dame can likely win without the junior developing into a top tier playmaker this fall, but there would also be a ceiling on the offense's collective potential.

The good news for Irish fans: no such ceiling appears to apply to the emerging Riddick.

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