November Gain?

IrishEyes offers a Pre-Camp Assessment of sophomore wide receiver Theo Riddick.

In a summer radio interview, head coach Brian Kelly noted that he recently purchased a house north of the city, adding the quip "in a gated community just in case we only win 12 games."

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.

Unhappy Returns

Riddick was surprisingly average as a kick returner last season. Then again, the Irish return and coverage units were far below average save for one incredible punt return by Golden Tate in Pittsburgh:
  • Nevada: Returned the season's opening kick-off 23 yards to the Irish 33-yard line. The Irish marched 67 yards in 12 plays for a touchdown.
  • Michigan: One kick return for 23 yards. The Wolverines kicked toward Barry Gallup, who made them pay with the season's long return of 52 yards while adding another 25-yard run back.
  • Michigan State: Recorded his season-best 38-yard return to the Irish 45-yard line. Notre Dame scored five passes later on a beautiful fade route from Clausen to Floyd. Added returns of 18, 25, and 26 yards during the contest.
  • Purdue: Brought his first offering back 35 yards to the ND 42-yard line. Added returns of 18, 26, and 17 yards vs. the Boilers.
  • Washington: Six average to sub par efforts (25, 14, 15, 27, 21, and 27 yards). The shortest returns were not the result of directional or short kickoffs.
  • USC: Notched returns of 31 and 17 yards, the former marked his third-best effort of the season.
  • Boston College: Returns of 26 and 24 yards.
  • Washington State: Earned 12 touches from scrimmage but returned two kicks 21 and 20 yards, respectively.
  • Navy: Helped the Irish gain field position after his first short return (19 yards) with 28, 28, and 26-yard efforts.
  • Pittsburgh: One short return of 13 yards and another for 28 .
  • Connecticut: Gained 18, 28, and 22 yards on three kick returns.
  • Stanford: A poor overall effort with returns of 25, 21, 23, 22, 15, and 16 yards. The Cardinal, conversely, dominated the Irish coverage, starting beyond the Irish 38-yard line on six of seven return attempts.

Riddick, who averaged 22.9 yards on 37 kick returns, wasn't the sole culprit in Notre Dame's sub par effort. The Irish kick return group has lacked punch since Vontez Duff excelled in the role in 2002. (David Grimes was serviceable in 2006 at 24.2 per return). It starts up front, and Irish return men, while decidedly unspectacular on their own, have had little help from the 10 blockers assigned to create space.

According to Kelly, that will change this fall: "I think we should have outstanding presence on our special teams and there's no reason why we shouldn't be a dynamic team when it comes to those areas.

"I think a lot of teams tend to wait during spring practice, relative to special teams," he continued. "We're going to get to work at it right away. I'm a big believer that you can (add) wins for your football team right away just by playing good special teams." Top Stories