Ten players, ten reasons: Theo Riddick

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The fifth in a series on ten below-the-radar players whose performances helped key the Irish’s run to the national title game. Others include Zeke Motta, Danny Spond, TJ Jones and Prince Shembo.

In one of Brian Kelly’s first meetings with the media after taking over Notre Dame’s football team, he gushed about Theo Riddick. The soon-to-be sophomore became one of Kelly’s early projects, with a move to slot receiver designed to get the ball to Riddick early and often and fill a vacancy on a roster in desperate need of pass catchers.

Yet the move didn’t bring immediate success. As much as everybody knew Riddick was a player that could make things happen, the results were a mixed bag. After a slow start in 2010, Riddick exploded against Michigan State and caught 33 balls over four games before an ankle injury rendered him ineffective the rest of the season.

Entering 2011 expecting bigger things, Kelly once again identified Riddick as one of his premiere playmakers. The Irish coaching staff bet big on Riddick’s skillset on special teams, with the hopes that he’d add a dynamic element to the return game.

“What I’ve said to Theo is he’ll take his blows on offense,” Kelly said before the Irish’s season opening game against South Florida. “If he needs a play or two because he’s playing special teams, he’ll take it on offense.

“He has to be a huge impact for us in special teams.”

Unfortunately, that impact turned out to be a negative one, as Riddick struggled mightily as the team’s primary punt returner as he looked horribly uncomfortable returning punts and fumbled the ball away to USF in their shocking season opening loss. While he rallied with two touchdowns against Michigan the next week, Riddick never resumed his role as the team’s return specialist, and a season that opened with so much promise individually for Riddick went the way of the team, with Riddick all but mirroring the production of his sophomore season — just like the Irish did with a replica 8-5 season — a disappointment for everyone, all things considered.

With Jonas Gray going down to a serious knee injury and Riddick banged up late in the season as well, the junior returned to the lineup as a back-up running back, getting eight carries for a respectable 36 yards against Florida State in the bowl loss.

After three seasons, Theo Riddick’s role on the Irish offense was still up in the air. Playing for a coach that was known for his ability to develop players, the struggles Riddick had finding his role in the Irish offense were puzzling. With a return to the backfield in store for his senior season — again to help fill a deficiency in the depth chart — even sparkling early returns after an impressive spring, left many skeptical.

Yet Riddick’s senior season has been a triumph on multiple levels. The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder went from being a mismatching piece of the puzzle to the team’s bell cow. After being a player who’s productivity was riddled by ups-and-downs, Riddick’s senior season was a marvel of consistency. Taking over as the starting running back while Cierre Wood sat for the team’s first two games, Riddick never gave up the job — trusted by Kelly to run for the tough yards and be the team’s most versatile weapon.

That Riddick was able to make that transformation again speaks to player development. And while it sometimes takes longer than you’d like it to, when the light bulb finally goes on, it’s a tremendously rewarding situation.

Running back’s coach Tony Alford — who has been Riddick’s position coach for all four seasons at Notre Dame — talked about Riddick’s transformation last week, recalling one of the key moments in the senior’s development.

ESPN’s Matt Fortuna told the story:

Shortly after Riddick’s return to the backfield — where he would bear some of his old responsibilities as a slot man, too — the senior messed up an assignment. Bad.

Head coach Brian Kelly, in no pleasant terms, let Riddick hear about it. And the response was night and day from what Alford had come to expect.

“When I saw a distinct change is when Coach Kelly ripped him a new one for a mistake that was made and got after him,” Alford said. “And instead of Theo going in the tank, which he had a tendency to do, and to shut things off when Coach would get after him, he looked up and said: ‘Yes, sir. I got it.’ He patted Coach on the rear end, said: ‘I got it,’ turned around, walked away and got it. Versus pouting, where he had a tendency to do that earlier in his career.

“Which told me that he’s finally getting it. This is not a personal attack. We’re trying to get you better.”

And Riddick’s gotten nothing but better all season. While he sometimes struggled to put up the type of production you’d expect from a No. 1 running back, he continued to be the guy Kelly counted on, the head coach willing to sacrifice a few yards in the name of stability and consistency.

“I think when we got him back with the ball in his hand as a running back he really blossomed as a complete player,” Kelly said of Riddick. “I think the stages that he went through this year were that he exerted his will. He played physical. He had a determination. He made a number of big plays during the year.”

No plays were bigger than the ones he made against USC, where Riddick carried the Irish offense as a runner, grinding out tough carries between the tackles but also showing the elusiveness and skills in the open field that long dazzled the coaching staff.

Heading into his final game for the Irish, Theo Riddick is the dynamic player many expected to see these past four years. It’s just taken a little bit longer for him to get there.

Better late than never.