Getty Images - Jonathan Daniel

2011 in 100 words… Theo Riddick


Part five of twelve previews analyzing a dozen players essential to the Irish making a BCS run next season. Part one looked at Braxston Cave, part two Sean Cwynar, part three Jonas Gray, and part four Trevor Robinson. Enjoy.

Player Overview:

If there was a move emblematic of what Brian Kelly appeared to be as a football coach, it was his decision to move talented freshman running back Theo Riddick to wide receiver before his first practice coaching the team. Kelly’s reputation for taking a football player and finding a spot for him that helped both the player and team was exemplified in his first days on the job and fan curiosity was stoked when Kelly had more than optimistic things to say about his new slot receiver.

“I really have high high expectations for him,” Kelly said of Riddick during preseason camp. “He’s an elite player. He’s learning a position, but I think we’ll be talking a lot about Theo Riddick as we move through the season.”

Irish fans didn’t see an elite player until the third week of the season, when Riddick broke out for 10 catches, 128 yards and his first touchdown of the season against Michigan State, showing the flashes many expected to see from the electric sophomore. But after a strong four-game string of play, Riddick’s season was essentially ended with a severe ankle sprain suffered against Western Michigan, that kept him out until the regular season finale against USC.

2010 Season:

Growing pains were evident as the Irish offense began to take shape and Theo Riddick seemed to be feeling them as well during the first two weeks of the season.

“I still think we’re a work in progress there,” Kelly said of Riddick after losing to Michigan. “It’s something that he’s learning more every day about how to be a championship wide receiver not just a guy. He’s worked hard at it. We have to be a little bit patient in that process of getting him where we need him to be. I see a comfort level with him each and every week where he’s starting to feel a lot more comfortable… I think we’re in the early stages of development of a very good player.”

Whether there was a change of focus in the offense or Riddick merely continued developing, the next four games saw Theo emerge as the playmaker Kelly expected to see. Riddick’s 31 catches over the next four games led the team, adding another element to an offense that was overly reliant on Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph, who was dealing with a hamstring injury that’d end his season shortly.

In many ways, Riddick’s injury came at the very worst time for his development, and the ankle sprain that kept him out for four games and limited him for the rest of the season hampered a year that could’ve blossomed for Riddick, both in the slot and in a return game badly in need of his presence.

100 word preview for Theo Riddick in 2011:

Providing only a hint of what he can accomplish with the football in his hands last season, expect Theo Riddick to emerge as the most versatile offensive weapon for the Irish in 2011. Whether he’s lined up in the slot, at running back, or returning punts and kicks, the Irish need to get the ball to Riddick in space and let him take over the football game. In an offense ready to take its next large evolutionary step, Riddick is the likeliest vehicle to spur change, using his diverse skill-set and elite speed to raise the bar for the offense.

Importance in 2011:

Riddick’s evolution will do more for Michael Floyd than any change in game plan, and if the coaching staff has its way, he’ll dominate two facets of the football game, helping to jump-start a return game that was subpar on both punts and kicks.

Even amidst chaos, Kelly expecting USC’s best

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Rocky Hayes, Blaise Taylor

USC head coach Steve Sarkisian was fired on Monday, with interim head coach Clay Helton taking the reins of the Trojan program during tumultuous times. Helton will be the fourth different USC head coach to face Notre Dame in as many years, illustrative of the chaos that’s shaken up Heritage Hall in the years since Pete Carroll left for the NFL.

All eyes are on the SC program, with heat on athletic director Pat Haden and the ensuing media circus that only Los Angeles can provide. But Brian Kelly doesn’t expect anything but their best when USC boards a plane to take on the Irish in South Bend.

While the majority of Notre Dame’s focus will be inward this week, Kelly did take the time on Sunday and Monday to talk with his team about the changes atop the Trojan program, and how they’ll likely impact the battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh.

“We talked about there would be an interim coach, and what that means,” Kelly said. “Teams come together under those circumstances and they’re going to play their very best. And I just reminded them of that.”

While nobody on this Notre Dame roster has experienced a coaching change, they’ve seen their share of scrutiny. The Irish managed to spring an upset not many saw coming against LSU last year in the Music City Bowl after a humiliating defeat against the Trojans and amidst the chaos of a quarterbacking controversy. And just last week, we saw Charlie Strong’s team spring an upset against arch rival Oklahoma when just about everybody left the Longhorns for dead.

“I think you look at the way Texas responded this past weekend with a lot of media scrutiny,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I expect USC to respond the same way, so we’re going to have to play extremely well.”

Outside of the head coaching departure, it’s difficult to know if there’ll be any significant difference between a team lead by Sarkisian or the one that Helton will lead into battle. The offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach has been at USC for six years, and has already held the title of interim head coach when he led the Trojans to a 2013 Las Vegas Bowl title after Lane Kiffin was fired and Ed Orgeron left the program after he wasn’t given the full time position.

Helton will likely call plays, a role he partially handled even when Sarkisian was on the sideline. The defense will still be run by Justin Wilcox. And more importantly, the game plan will be executed by a group of players that are among the most talented in the country.

“They have some of the finest athletes in the country. I’ve recruited a lot of them, and they have an immense amount of pride for their program and personal pride,” Kelly said. “So they will come out with that here at Notre Dame, there is no question about that.”

Irish add commitment from CB Donte Vaughn

Donte Vaughn

Notre Dame’s recruiting class grew on Monday. And in adding 6-foot-3 Memphis cornerback Donte Vaughn, it grew considerably.

The Irish added another jumbo-sized skill player in Vaughn, beating out a slew of SEC offers for the intriguing cover man. Vaughn picked Notre Dame over offers from Auburn, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M among others.

He made the announcement on Monday, his 18th birthday:

It remains to be seen if Vaughn can run like a true cornerback. But his length certainly gives him a skill-set that doesn’t currently exist on the Notre Dame roster.

Interestingly enough, Vaughn’s commitment comes a cycle after Brian VanGorder made news by going after out-of-profile coverman Shaun Crawford, immediately offering the 5-foot-9 cornerback after taking over for Bob Diaco, who passed because of Crawford’s size. An ACL injury cut short Crawford’s freshman season before it got started, but not before Crawford already proved he’ll be a valuable piece of the Irish secondary for years to come.

Vaughn is another freaky athlete in a class that already features British Columbia’s Chase Claypool. With a safety depth chart that’s likely turning over quite a bit in the next two seasons, Vaughn can clearly shift over if that’s needed, though Notre Dame adding length like Vaughn clearly points to some of the shifting trends after Richard Sherman went from an average wide receiver to one of the best cornerbacks in football, and Vaughn will be asked to play on the outside.

Vaughn is the 15th member of Notre Dame’s 2016 signing class. He is the fifth defensive back, joining safeties D.J. Morgan, Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry along with cornerback Julian Love. The Irish project to take one more.

With Notre Dame expecting another huge recruiting weekend with USC coming to town, it’ll be very interesting to see how the Irish staff close out this recruiting class.