Mar 16, 2011, 12:53 PM EDT
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.
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.
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.