Slotted for Success

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly offers a weekly offensive depth chart for the benefit of the media and Irish fans. The latter groups would be wise to avoid reading too much into it.

Theo Riddick thrived. It took three years and a role change, but after two middling seasons marred but intermittent injury and inconsistency, the team's ultimate hybrid player made good on both of his oft-referenced skills: he ran like a running back and ran under passes like a receiver.

Riddick was Notre Dame's No. 1 offensive player last season -- not its best, that was either tight end Tyler Eifert or left tackle Zack Martin -- but the most involved and productive, leading the team in total touchdowns scored, total first downs earned, rushing attempts and both rushing and total yards while ranking third in receptions and receiving yardage.

He didn't start in the slot, but he played there plenty, as did classmate and technical starter Robby Toma. And backup tight end Troy Niklas. And third-string tight end Ben Koyack. And starting tight end/wide receiver Tyler Eifert.

Yes, even in the position's most successful season under head coach Brian Kelly, the slot role was manned by many -- to the benefit of the offense.

"This offense isn't going to change," said running backs coach Tony Alford, the longest-tenured Irish coach (2009) who's technical title is that of running back/slot receivers coach. "We're going to do what we do and the body and names are going to change. They're going to decide what we do. Like when Michael Floyd left, everyone said, 'Notre Dame can't play football anymore. Shut this thing down.'

"All of a sudden we started throwing the ball to Eifert. Then Theo Riddick emerges. Guys are on scholarship, guys leave. The next guys on scholarship, guess what, you're getting paid a lot of money that Notre Dame puts out there to play for your school, now its time for you to go make plays and step up."

One of those guys expected to step up was the since-transferred Davonte' Neal. Technically the team's No. 2 slot receiver per its depth chart last fall, Neal saw two passes thrown in his direction. He caught the first -- and lost five yards. He was no more the No. 2 slot than Andrew Hendrix was the No. 2 QB (similarly listed along with Tommy Rees).

The depth chart matters far more to fans and visiting media than the staff or players. For them, it doesn't exist.

"I think the way we set things here, there isn't a depth chart," said Kelly of the evolving competition throughout the ranks. "You don't walk into the locker room and see a depth chart. Does the first group have to go out?  Yes."

That first group doesn't have to include a slot receiver. More often than not in 2012, Toma left the field in favor of a second tight end, or backup running back Cierre Wood entered with Riddick shifting out to the slot. Or Eifert moved inside to a de facto slot position, and Notre Dame flanked him with receivers T.J. Jones, DaVaris Daniels, and Daniel Smith. Or Eifert's backup Troy Niklas aligned tight, with the senior star allowed to move across scrimmage and back pre-snap.

Its up to a wide receiver or running back to play well enough in 2013 that he be deemed worthy of a spot in the game day rotation.

Riddick was. Toma was less so than the team's No. 2 tight end. The quick-footed Neal would have played, but how much was nowhere near determined.

"You know me, 'Next Man In.' We just fill it in," said Kelly of his sophomore's transfer. "There'll be a number of guys. When Amir (Carlisle) comes back he'll get a chance. C.J. Prosise is doing a great job, I'm really excited about C.J…Again, you're talking about a slot receiver at 210 pounds. Nice hands, can run away (from the defense). And of course in the run game, now you have a bigger guy (blocking)."

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The slot position under Kelly likely peaked in 2009, when Cincinnati's do-everything Marty Gilyard emerged as one of the nation's most dynamic players, doing the bulk of his damage in the role.

Gilyard was a deep threat in addition to showing the ability to cut up defenses after the short catch. Do the Irish need Gilyard 2.0 to take Kelly's offense to the next level?

"The way our offense is generated, guys can do anything," said Alford. "If TJ (Jones) can do it, then he'll be the guy that does it. If Troy Niklas shows he can do more because he matures, then we'll move him and have him do some things. If George (Atkinson), Cam (McDaniel), Will (Mahone), Amir (Carlisle) show they could do things, they'll do it," he continued of the spring running back quartet.

"It's why we practice. How much information can you bring in and retain, and be able to do it a high level? But I'm not going to ask any of our players to be Theo Riddick. I'm going to ask them to be the best they can be."

Asked if the Irish have received enough from the position, Alford paused before offering, "I don't know. You'd have to evaluate (exactly) what you want. Last year? Yeah, we did. What do you define as success? One man's ceiling is another man's basement. If some say, 'I want the Z (slot) receiver to catch 100 balls, but he only catches 50, then I guess no. But if you're tight end caught 80…"

The tight end Alford alluded to was Eifert. Targeted for a whopping 96 passes, Eifert rarely left the field. He was regularly joined by a second tight end in Niklas, and often a third in Ben Koyack. The team's "12 Personnel" grouping was its preferred package.

"We ran the ball more. A bigger body was there vs. having Robby Toma block a guy," said Alford of the preponderance of tight ends in 2012. "It depends on what you're trying to do. I still think we're working through that.

"I think (offensive coordinator) Chuck (Martin) does a fantastic job of being the offensive coordinator to the rest of the staff as far as saying, 'Who do we have at our disposal? Here's what we have, how can we do this? How can we position guys to maximize what we want to do and maximize their skill set?'"

Asked prior to Neal's transfer for a spring goal at the position, Alford offered, "To figure out who's going to be there. We're going to put guys on the field who are going to be consistent playmakers for us. They're going to prove that in their own right through these 15 practices moving into the summer.

"That could be a week-to-week deal."

It often was last season en route to 12-0, regardless of what the so-called, altogether antiquated, "depth chart" read.


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