At some point during the dog days of summer; sometime after the first (annual) glowing report of the athletes' 7-on-7 drills trickled through the various Notre Dame message boards, two freshmen running backs ceded their individuality and took on the persona of a pair: a talented, touchdown-scoring tandem of the future that neither Irish fans, nor the team's coaches, could speak of without mention of the other.
Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick: both in line for the team's kick returner position, according to their head coach. Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood: both way ahead of the freshmen running back curve, according to sophomore teammate and fellow halfback Jonas Gray.
The tandem's position coach, with two practices remaining in fall camp, couldn't quite tell which of the two ball carriers was ahead of his alter ego on the soon-to-be-formed "Nevada Week" depth chart. Their possible supplementary position coach on special teams doesn't know where they're going to fit in yet, either…just that they will.
At some point, one of Riddick or Wood will make a play against someone other than a teammate or an orange cone, and our first pressing question will be answered. Until, of course, the other responds with a return, run, reception, or block of his own...just as he has throughout fall camp.
The World According to Cierre Wood"Theo got off to a faster start than I did, I found myself thinking way too much. But the more we practiced the more it started to click and come natural at some point."
On what convinced Wood to give up the sunshine of California to come to Notre Dame
"I ask myself that question a lot - it's a lot of things, not just football. You have to look at the big picture, and if you're serious about wanting to have a good education; and wanting to be successful in life - that's why I chose to come here. "You can't play football the rest of your life; you just can't do it. At some point your knees are going to give out (etc.) So you have to have a Plan B. And getting a degree from (Notre Dame) is going to help me (in life)."
On his biggest adjustment so far
"Right now there hasn't been one. But once that winter comes...you don't know how many beanies...how many jackets...how many boots I have. Because I told Coach (Weis): 'I'm gonna have hypothermia...we have an inside complex, we better use it!'"
"It's like 70 right now? I have not been in anything past the 60s. Once it gets below that I'm going to start putting on thirty layers of clothes.
"They tell me (South Bend) gets five-feet of snow. When we get that I'm staying inside. We'll have to have practice via the web cam or something like that 'cause I'm not going outside. I'll turn into a black icicle!"
Describing his relationship with Riddick
"Man, its funny, because we're really similar. He called it out first. Then we started doing things together; or he'll start saying something and I'll finish it; or we'll even say the same thing.
"We're both rebellious - we argued for two hours about a window being open. He said I had it open but I begged to differ."
(For the record, Wood held out and Riddick shut the window).
"If I mess up," Wood continued, "he'll (Riddick) help me out. And if he messes up I'll let him know."
On the biggest physical adjustment he's noticed so far
"The speed of the game is faster (admitting); it's a lot faster. I'll be in the backfield, scanning, and think I'll know where I'm going to go - I'll see the hole like this (hands wide apart) and you'll look away, because your eyes are constantly moving as a running back, and as soon as you look away it's like right there (hands barely apart).
"So your margin of error is real thin. You just have to hit it (the hole) and hit it fast."
Theo Riddick on his relationship with Wood"Oh yeah definitely. We roomed here the first day and ever since then we're the same (exact) person. We laugh 24/7. It's crazy, it's weird, but trust me, we have a whole bunch of fun."
On Coach Weis' assessment that Wood can't stop talking
"No, I'm more conservative and laid back. I laugh but he has some jokes up his sleeve, trust me, he's a comedian."
On his biggest adjustment
"Mentally. You come here physically you're ready so it's all mental focus. Paying attention to the little things and using your ability to do what you do.
"In high school you don't have variations of defenses or linebackers moving 24/7 but at the same time, when you put a task (in front of you) you have to achieve that task, and everyone's working hard to achieve it. The veterans have helped a lot."
Head Coach Charlie Weis Regarding His Freshmen RBs"One or both could see the field, the question is, where do they stand in relationship to Armando (Allen) and Robert (Hughes) and Jonas (Gray) before we can get to them," explained Weis of his five halfbacks who've all shown their wares in August camp.
"But both of these guys have made it more difficult for a coaching staff when we make personnel decisions because neither one of them has played himself out of contention."
Regarding Riddick's best attribute as a player
"His (Riddick's) quickness. Cierre's a bigger guy, a more bruising guy who could run inside now while Theo's one of those guys that has a second or third gear. So they're a little different type of player.
"They both have very good ability. Cierre came in with the hype in the recruiting process but he has no leg up on Theo because Theo's been quite impressive as well."
When asked about the underrated (and difficult) adaptation for a freshman in the art of pass blocking
"(They're) better, because that's an ongoing process. I think both of them (are at their individual best) with the ball in their hands, but they understand that's not what happens (rushing) on every play; neither one of them is afraid to pick up the blitz and they're both capable of it which is a good start.
"Now making sure we get them lined up right every time, and making sure they understand blitz pick-up…if we can get those two things done I think they're (both) well on their way to seeing the field."
On the difficulty of the running back position for a first-year player
"Well it depends: if you're going to give them the ball it's easy. What do running backs in high school do? They get the ball on every play. They're not asked to pick-up crisscross blitzers inside. They're released out of the backfield or they have the ball in their hands. (Strictly) as a ball carrier (they both) walked in the door ready to go.
"Now the question is: can they get lined up with all the multiple formations we use and can they pick up the blitz? Those are always the two questions marks for a young guy (to answer) to be able to get on the field on a regular basis."
Regarding the tandem's presence in the Irish kick and punt return game
"I think they're both more natural kick-off returners than punt returners. But we've worked both of them at both positions.
"I'd be very leery opening up a season in punt returns not putting a veteran out there. Kick-return is a little different deal; if they get on the field as a returner it would be more as a kick than punt returner. You'll probably get 23 (Golden Tate) and 5 (Armando Allen) out there as the punt returners."
Running Backs Coach Tony Alford Regarding the Tandem"I couldn't' tell you who's ahead of whom. We'll know more when we come out of Sunday when we break camp – we'll know more of where we're headed."
Regarding their adjustment to blitz pickup
"They're doing better, but it's the little nuances of hat (helmet) placement when you're blocking; do you want your hat inside; do you want your hat outside? depending upon where the launch point (release) of the quarterback is, so there's a lot of different nuances they're picking up.
"It's new. These guys have still been here for only 15 practices but they're picking things up at a good rate so I've been proud of the way they've worked."
"Without question (blitz pickup is the hardest aspect of the game for freshman running back). There are two items:
- Where he fits in the protection?
- The actual blocking – the act of sinking your hips and blocking the (defender). A lot of guys in high school weren't asked to do that. Their contracts in high school were ‘pitch it to me and watch me run.' Here it's a little bit different. We're going to(ask you to know what to do when we) change the protection."
"There are a lot of checks and balances (at the position) and you're hitting a lot of moving parts. You're hitting a linebacker – one moment he's here, another he's over there so there's a lot of moving parts to it and the game, as they learn it, will slow down for them and they'll start to understand. "They can say ‘okay, here's where I fit; now let me (do the actual act of) blocking.'
"Brian Smith's (Irish linebacker) played a lot of football. He's a big body and he runs at a pretty high rate of speed so they have to figure out ‘okay, there he is – now I have to go block him.' Those are the hardest things for a young running back."
On what he's looking for from his new ‘backs
"(Only partly joking)I want them to show me that they can score touchdowns! Seriously, the biggest thing at this position is you have to make plays but you have to be consistent every single day: about the way you handle your business, your work – so you're just looking for consistency; eliminating mistakes. They're really working at (the process) and getting better every day."
On Riddick's style vs. Wood's style
"We recruit them for a reason. They have the ability to go make plays. We don't change their styles (wholesale). We try to enhance what they do well and put some other things in the repertoire that they have to work on and maybe bring another piece to the (table) and then see how we can get those improvements integrated because it all comes down to being a complete player.
"You have to be a guy that can get out and catch the ball; you have to be a guy that can run-block – pass-block in this offense definitely – and you have to be able to run. You have to make plays and to make good decisions with the ball and secure it and go.
Regarding the perceived pecking order of Allen-Hughes-Gray followed by Riddick/Wood
"We've tried to impress upon everyone: I don't care if you're a senior or if you're a freshman – it really comes down to production. Just go out there and produce. When it's your time to play you have to produce.
"It doesn't matter how old you are. If you're a productive guy and you (produce) consistently then you put yourself in the position where you get to play more.
"I haven't really gone into: ‘he's young or old.' Let's just go play and see who can make plays…I've been happy with the progress of everyone in the room quite frankly. Jonas (Gray) has grown up a lot and gotten better and the two freshmen have really worked hard and they're learning."