Yes, Irish fans are a difficult lot to please, and that reality was illustrated early last spring when Kelly announced that freshman running back Theo Riddick was moving to wide receiver (presumably "slot" receiver).
Just three months prior, fans had trouble containing their collective joy when Kelly preached "player development" as the cornerstone of the program. They likewise embraced Kelly's penchant for evaluating players at different positions ("just like Lou!") or even on the other side of the line of scrimmage – making the most of the given player's talents, but more important, attempting to improve the team.
Yet the fallout from the first notable position switch of the Kelly era elicited mostly groans from the masses. Fans had fallen in love with Riddick's quickness as a freshman and embraced the under-recruited runner as Notre Dame's ‘back of the future – one that would finally bring the element of the home run back to the ground game.
A sophomore pegged by fans and media as one of the team's bright spots for 2010 was switching positions.
"We have to get more touches for the three dynamic players at running back," Kelly said of the move.
"So if you assume that the other guy we have to find room for is Cierre Wood, then if you have Cierre and Theo, somebody's not going to get a chance to get touches. So somebody had to go to wide receiver. And Theo has the best overall skills..."
I was skeptical of the move after brief glimpses of Riddick's work in practice viewings. Then after one rainy afternoon in late April, the move suddenly made sense.
Late-season call-up?He rarely looked natural receiving a pass. He looked a little hesitant in drills vs. aggressive cornerbacks, he was unsure of proper hand placement at times, and he basically resembled a running back auditioning with wide receivers.
The above represents the inevitably skewed observations readers will receive through brief media glimpses of an Irish practice. Through the bulk of the spring, I saw nothing that indicated Riddick would contribute next fall, but at the culmination of the spring session, Theo Riddick ran the best route of the contest, combining with Nate Montana for the prettiest pass play of the Blue Gold Game – a 14-yard post-route in which Riddick found a hole in the back of the Irish zone for a leaping touchdown.
Riddick, who participated in every practice but was nonetheless restricted during spring ball by off-season shoulder surgery, is unlikely to win a starting position in August. He might not catch more than a handful of balls in September. But as the season progresses, and Riddick becomes more comfortable with the scheme and his role, I believe you'll see the natural playmaker emerge as a key component of Kelly's offense.
Cameo appearances from Riddick last season indicated he was the team's quickest ‘back. The final tally of 29 carries for 160 yards can be broken down into four segments:
- Game Four at Purdue: One run from the "Wildcat" formation gains 24 yards to the right. Riddick burst over a caved in right side and produced the fifth-longest run of scrimmage for the season on his sixth career carry.
- Game Eight vs. Washington State: Riddick disappeared from the Irish attack over the next month, but starred in the second and third quarters of the blowout win over the Cougars, earning 75 yards from scrimmage on 12 touches (including three receptions).
- Game Nine vs. Navy: With Armando Allen again sidelined, Robert Hughes drew the starting assignment but Riddick provided the spark. Notre Dame trailed 14-0 in the third quarter; Charlie Weis inserted Riddick and the freshman responded, gaining 3, 7, 18, 2, and 5 on the offense's first scoring drive, then not receiving a touch again until a 16-yard pass on the sidelines set up Notre Dame's final, desperate score in defeat.
- Game 12 at Stanford: Earned his first career start and promptly fumbled the first hand-off to set-up the Cardinal's first touchdown. Riddick responded with six carries for 35 yards including a 24-yard burst (tied as the sixth-longest rush of the season for the squad) on 3rd and 1 to set up an Irish touchdown.
Riddick's natural one-cut running style elicited excitement and hope from the fan base, but his position switch can't be viewed in vacuum, and early returns on the move are positive, as Notre Dame's trio of Armando Allen, Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray starred in the spring and in the Blue Gold Game.
Allen has earned the coach's confidence (he'll start vs. Purdue, I promise you) while Wood captured this one writer's attention with his fluid cutting ability and vision (I think Wood will emerge as tailback 1A to Allen by mid-October). Gray intermittently showed quickness, power, soft hands and sheer speed in the Blue Gold Game (then again, so did nearly every runner that faced the Irish defenders last fall). If he can avoid the costly mental mistake (fumbles, missed blocking assignments) he'll challenge for a true role in 2010.
The backfield appears to be in good hands, and Riddick can help the 2010 offense more so as a fourth or fifth receiver than he could as one of three backup tailbacks (not including combo back Robert Hughes).
Riddick's move to wide receiver might not be permanent (should Jonas Gray continue to scuffle, a Wood/Riddick combo is likely in 2011). But if Wood and Gray both earn the coaches' confidence with strong efforts this fall, Riddick has a chance to be special in space and after the catch in his new slot receiver role.
It won't be seamless in 2010, but the wide receiver group's winter addition could be November's gain.